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What Makes a Good “Thank You”?

Six ingredients to say thank you like you mean it

According to research by Dr Sara Algoe, associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, couples who feel and express gratitude for one another are more likely to stay together, feel closer, show more commitment to their relationship, and have better skills in discussing difficulties.

There are two parts to expressing gratitude. The first is acknowledging the things you appreciate in your partner. The second part is expressing it.

The find-remind-and-bind theory of gratitude posits that the positive emotion of gratitude strengthens a relationship when a partner is responsive to it (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008). In other words, it’s the open giving and receiving of gratitude that reaps the benefits.

More: Is your relationship affecting your mental health?

There are two parts to expressing gratitude. The first is acknowledging the things you appreciate in your partner, from their personality and physical traits, skills and abilities to the everyday loving gestures they make or things they do or say. The second part is the act of expressing it.

Saying “thank you” verbally shows your partner how much you appreciate and value them for who they are, what they do and what they bring to the relationship. The 'Enduring Love?' study found there were many non-verbalized ways to express appreciation. For example, when your partner takes the dog for a walk it could be their way of saying thank you for all the other chores that you’ve been doing. Or they may take responsibility for packing the dishwasher because you do most of the cooking. This is a kind of appreciation or ‘gift’ .

But here’s the clincher! According to research by Algoe and others not all thank yous are created equal. According to them, the thank you needs to be expressed in the most loving and constructive way in order to be received well and for the true benefits to kick in. The more responsive your partner is to your thank you, the better a thank you it was!

With that in mind and in the nature of Thanksgiving, here are my top tips on how to say thank you and mean it. Plus, to find out how well you and your partner give thanks, download the Paired app and take our couple's quiz.

1. Emphasize the “you” in "thank you"

Dr Algoe’s research found that the most impactful expressions of gratitude among couples in her study came when grateful partners called out the specific praiseworthiness of their partner’s actions and what stood out to them the most – in so doing they made their partner (the benefactor) feel understood and validated. Grateful partners perceived the benefactor as being more responsive and were in a better mood for it.

2. Use body language

It’s important to use your body language to convey your gratitude sincerely. Instead of an off-the-cuff “thanks” muttered over your shoulder as you walk from the other room, thank your partner face-to-face and make eye contact; lean in, touch them, smile and verbally express your gratitude.

3. Don’t overdo it

Dr Algoe found that the benefits to the partner hearing and receiving the thank you were contingent on seeing their partner as caring, understanding, and validating. In fact, going over the top when it’s unwarranted may actually _undermine_an expression.

4. Watch your pitch

Karyn Fish and her colleagues at McGill University found that vocal cues can help listeners evaluate the sincerity of a positive expression. Acoustic analyses revealed that compliments perceived as being sincere were spoken faster and began with a higher pitch than those that sounded insincere, while compliments rated as insincere tended to get louder as they unfolded.

5. Know the “why”

Fish’s research also found that motivations of both the speaker and hearer contribute to impressions of speaker sincerity. The research showed that even a feeling of authentic gratitude speaks volumes – the sincere intent to acknowledge your partner’s positive words or actions allows your thank you to come across more genuinely, naturally and is more likely to be received well. In other words, don’t say thank you for the sake of it.

6. Understand how your partner wishes to receive thanks

Finally, when making sure your thank yous are received well by your partner. In our large scale study of long-term couple relationships, myself and colleagues at The Open University found that there are multiple ways of expressing gratitude, including non-verbal methods. A written thank you note, for example, or a cup of tea landing on your desk mid-video call! Ask your partner how they wish to receive thanks and listen attentively to their answer so that your efforts to show them you care and appreciate them don’t go unnoticed.

It’s worth remembering though, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, that any acknowledgement of thanks, even a simple thank you can bring rewards for you and your partner. Expressing gratitude simultaneously makes your partner feel valued and – with very little effort – makes it clear that you are worth their investment.

More: Are your arguments getting out of hand?

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Further reading

About the writer

Dr. Jacqui Gabb

Jacqui is Professor of Sociology and Intimacy at The Open University in the UK and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.

Her 'Enduring Love?' study on long-term couple relationships has received widespread critical acclaim, with findings being reported in national and international media, including: BBC World News, CNN, the New York Post, and more.

Her research and impact activities have been recognised by three prestigious awards: the BSA Philip Abrams Memorial prize (2009, the Open University Engaging Research Award (2014), the Evelyn Gillian Research Impact Award (2016).

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