Too often, we focus all our attention on acquiring what we want, achieving goals, avoiding what we don’t want, and getting our way. Amidst the hubbub, we forget to include the Power of Appreciation in soothing conflict. As huge, powerful beings, we forget that we created this love relationship to begin with and that we create, or uncreate, it by perpetuating fear, resentment and anger—or choosing appreciation. As a couple’s therapist, I always teach the Power of Appreciation in our first session.
For instance, Ralph and Linda had perfected their complaining skills the past 19 years. On the brink of divorce, their marriage had deteriorated into yelling matches, seething resentments and loud silences.
We love each other,” Linda said, “but somehow we forgot how to get along.”
After naming their resentment stories out loud, and listening to each other’s feelings, I gave them a most challenging assignment: “For one month, I want you to refrain from anger and appreciate each other for big and little things each day.”
I turned to Linda first. “Would you be willing, Linda, to appreciate Ralph for working hard to support you and your three teenage boys these past nineteen years? And for pitching baseballs and practicing soccer plays with the boys after a long day’s work? And for saving gas money during the recession by bicycling to work, even on cold January days? And for learning how to keep his temper in check after his second DUI when he quite drinking?”
Linda rolled her eyes, looked aside, swallowed hard, then said, “Yeah, okay.”
Next I looked into Ralph’s eyes. “Are you willing, Ralph, to thank Linda for learning how to cook low-cholesterol, no-salt meals after your first heart attack amidst her busy career as a journalist? And for all the times she somehow manages to get the boys to soccer practice and gets dinner on the table and creates fun family weekend plans? In other words, all the small and big ways she shows love?”
Ralph nodded. “Yeah, I guess in all the busyness I forgot to appreciate her.”
We still had a pile of resentments and unresolved conflicts to address over the next few months. But appreciation paved the path toward forgiving hearts.
Year after year, as routine and bad habits dull our senses, we forget to appreciate loved ones. Appreciation slips through the cracks, unspoken, as we race through our busy lives. Soon all that undying love in our romantic phase succumbs to complaints and blame. Our mental story of what is and isn’t possible with our lover or spouse blinds us to seeing them clearly anymore. Over the years, resentments are honed into an art form. Instead of co-creating the relationship we want, we collapse into feeling stuck in a dying relationship without tools for how to get unstuck.
But when we consciously invite a daily dose of appreciation into our love relationships, we can turn a corner we never knew existed. The Power of Appreciation creates an attitude shift—from complaining to valuing the time, attention, effort and focus a loved one puts into our relationship every day, even if it’s different than what we put in. Appreciation reminds us to stop falling forward into what’s next and truly value what we have. It stretches our hearts and minds to feel love in all its surprising form.
Because our small ego thrives on judgment, doubt, and complaining, it wants nothing to do with our attempts to appreciate. Suffering from a case of chronic dissatisfaction, ego can’t waste time appreciating anything. It is always onto the “next thing,” chattering nonstop inside our heads about what we need to get, do, have or keep in order to be happy, to be good enough.
But when we pause two seconds to acknowledge to ourselves or loved ones, “Thank you for working today, bringing groceries home, cooking dinner, being a good parent or lover, losing two pounds, eating healthy, mowing the lawn, exercising, tending our newborn, taxiing the kids to gymnastics, meditating, living ethically, following your passion, getting good grades, keeping up with Pilates or yoga classes,” we stop ego’s runaway train. Appreciation brings value to those small, unspoken daily acts (done by our selves and loved ones) that help life go smoother.
Appreciation replaces ego’s chronic habit of lumping every experience into “good” or “bad” judgments with “this moment is good enough, perfect exactly as it is.” It reminds us to pause long enough to appreciate the things our spouse did do to keep the family functioning rather than focusing on the one thing they forgot. And to thank our child for doing their homework, even if we wish they were getting an A.
Years ago, psychologists studied appreciation in couples. In the experimental group, couples agreed to only appreciate each other for several weeks and silence their complaints. The control group appreciated good behavior but also complained about bad behavior. After one month those couples that complained and praised noticed little change. But the daily diet of appreciation created such a safe, loving environment that, to their surprise, couples reported, “all bad or negative behavior fell away without saying a single word about it.”
The power of appreciation, which helps us feel seen and heard and valued (sometimes for the first time), goes a long way into healing past wounds of feeling undervalued and unseen.
A month after my first session with Ralph and Linda, as I said goodbye to my last client, I heard soft whispers and giggles coming from my office waiting room. I peeked around the privacy screen to see Ralph and Linda snuggling and laughing like teenagers on the couch. Both looked ten years younger and light years less inhibited to be their unabashed selves.
“When Linda looked dreamily into my eyes and told me all the things she appreciates about me,” Ralph grinned, “I melted like a school kid. I’m falling in love with her all over again.” Linda shrugged and snuggled deeper under his arm.
When we pause a few seconds to appreciate what is, we enter the unbounded reality of our grateful heart. We start flowing easily into each precious moment with lighthearted abandon, less attached to notions of how life should be and utterly delighted with how perfect it is, exactly as it is.
Learn more about Carolyn Hobbs, LMFT, author of FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart, at her website: http://www.carolyn-hobbs.com.