Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Appreciation Gap

Emily Yoffe, Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” is surely one of the best advice columnists. This week she outdid herself with her answer to a man who was complaining that his second wife did not love his children from a first marriage.

The man wrote:

My second wife has always gotten along well with my kids from my first marriage. Since our marriage, she became a typical mom who cooks healthful meals, frets over safety, and plans fun activities. However, I overheard her whispered telephone conversation with her mother about how she never really loved my kids. She said her heart is not in it and she's only cared about them because she loves me. 

Heaven knows where said letter writer got the impression that what matters is not what you do but how you feel when you are doing it. Apparently, he does not understand the importance of fulfilling obligations, so he disparages them when they are not accompanied with the right feeling.

Yoffe explains that many stepmothers would do far less than his wife does. Then she offers this brilliant retort:

Your wife has wholly embraced her obligations and is making a delightful home for your kids. That should make you appreciate her all the more. 

Yoffe recommends that the man not mention the conversation he overheard—again, excellent advice—but should make a point of telling his wife how much he appreciates all that she does for his children.

She explains:

But a few weeks from now, after perhaps a long and exhausting weekend with your children, tell her how much you appreciate what she does for them. Say that you know being a stepmother can be thankless, so you wanted to thank her what she does. (And also make sure that your children express their appreciation to her. Not in a rote or obsequious way, but because you are training them to be grateful to anyone who goes out of their way for them.) Years down the line, she may discover that as far as your children are concerned at some point—she can't even put her finger on when—she found her heart fully engaged.

For all anyone knows, the fault may not lie in the second wife’s mind. It might lie in the fact that she does not feel appreciated. If that is so, the best way to resolve the problem is to show her how much she is appreciated. If, perchance, that is not the problem, nothing is lost by making gestures that express gratitude. It will make the husband feel more like a decent human being and less like a whiner.

Entirely by chance, Elizabeth Bernstein raised a similar issue in her Wall Street Journal column yesterday.

She wrote:

Experts say a common cause of divorce is the feeling of being unappreciated by one's spouse. It is a problem that sneaks up on a relationship. Couples expect that having children or financial difficulties will put a strain on their relationship. Yet they are often unprepared for the sadness and resentment that result from feeling ignored or taken for granted by their partner.

Now here's the good news: Studies show that demonstrating appreciation for your partner not only makes the other person feel better, it makes you feel better, too.

For all the arguments over who should be doing what at home, it might turn out that women do not hate housework as much as they hate being unappreciated. Since reciprocity is a two-way street, one must immediately add, as Bernstein does, that husbands often feel unappreciated.

Once the kitchen becomes a war zone and household chores become a political issue and both spouses are supposed to be self-sustaining economic units, it is more difficult for either spouse to show appreciation for what the other contributes to the marriage.

If you decide to bring the politics of grievance into your marriage you will never think to do what Tomi Tuel did for her husband one day.

Bernstein describes the scene:

When Tomi Tuel's husband comes home from a business trip, she grills him a steak and mixes up a Mudslide cocktail, bakes a cake and hangs party streamers from the fan over the kitchen table. Once after an especially long trip, she and the children dressed up the dog—in a tutu, reindeer ears and a sign around its neck that read: "Welcome home, Dad!"

This suggests, to me at least, that it is often not enough merely to say thank you. Admittedly, expressing gratitude is better than not expressing gratitude, but ceremonial expression through celebratory events speaks louder than mere words, however heartfelt. Certainly, it is better that complaining about a spouse’s absence of empathizing with his pain.

Bernstein also adds that spouses who celebrate and share successes are more likely to be relied on when things go wrong:

Researchers found people whose spouses were supportive when things were going right believed the partners also would be helpful if things should go wrong. 

To be blunt about it, when someone is only there for you when things go wrong he might be suspected of liking to watch you suffer.

She continues:

It's a lot easier to celebrate good times than to support someone through bad times. While it's important to be there for a partner when he or she is under stress, research shows there are challenges, too. You may not know what kind of help your spouse truly needs. Your support may make your partner feel vulnerable or indebted and focus more attention on the problem. And even when you succeed in giving support, you are bringing your partner's mood up to baseline, not necessarily making him or her happy.

Obviously, the most important celebrations are birthdays and anniversaries. Yet, the celebrations the Bernstein emphasizes involve success and achievement. Success is not its own reward. When your spouse ignores your accomplishments, you will feel diminished. More importantly, you will feel that you are on your own.

Again, it’s good to express appreciation verbally, but it is better to show it with gestures, with what you do. Celebration is important because it takes time, effort and thought. Again, it’s not about how you feel; it’s about what you do.

Bernstein’s experts also advise daily gestures to show appreciation. Routinized, ritualized efforts show care:

In addition to celebrating good times, experts say, it is essential to show appreciation to your spouse regularly, as in every day. "You need to participate in relationships to keep them alive," Dr. Gable says.

While reporting this column, I asked people how they show their spouse they care. I heard from husbands who bring their wives coffee in bed, warm up the car on cold mornings and save her the last piece of chocolate. There are wives who make breakfast for their husbands every morning and brag to friends, within his earshot, about what a great husband he is.

Research shows these little gestures have a powerful effect on a relationship. They promote commitment.

From Emily Yaffe and Elizabeth Bernstein, excellent advice on sustaining a marriage.


JP said...

I suspect that the reason for the "feeling" issue is that a lack of such feeling indicates a purely transactional bond rather than a bond that has any emotional depth.

The entire "feeling" issue looks like a red herring, in as much as it is a failure of language to convey the underlying reality.

Kath said...

I am glad I read this article today. It contains great wisdom and advice.

Our culture is very adolescent and people need to learn that fulfilling obligations is necessary for a successful marriage. Thanking one's spouse can turn duty into an act of love.

Sam L. said...

"Being taken for granted", or thinking that one is, is the slippery slope...

Anonymous said...

What kind of a man is so wussy that he eavesdrops on his wife and then goes whining to an Anne Landers clone?

Oh boo hoo, waaaaaaah, me cwy.

Anonymous said...

What a buffoon. Truly. A silly person. Sorry... I know people send stuff like this in. Congratulations.

The woman needs her space. Period.

Every human being is afforded the blessing of beings parent. A foster parent or a step-parent should be afforded the ability to parent as best they can.