Gratitude With Purpose in Marriage

gratitude-A husband and wife smiling at one another, holding each other close.
The Beautiful Mess
Appreciating your spouse will strengthen your marriage — and change you

At first it looked like the worst gift ever. I could read the expression on my wife’s, Lisa’s, face: “Why would you give this to me?”

Lisa held the stationery-store journal and thought (she later told me), You know I don’t like to journal. Please don’t ask me to do this.

But then she noticed it was stamped for the previous year, and the entries were already filled in.

The first page read, “Lisa’s Lovely Ways.” Each day that year, I’d written down something about her I was thankful for or some quality I admired that blessed me.

When she saw that, she cried.

“You found 365 things to say? Like, even on my ornery days?”

My daughter said, “Sheesh, Dad, that’s like something you see in a Hallmark movie that nobody ever really does.”

Gratitude doesn’t come naturally to me or most people. The way our brains work, we tend to stop noticing the commonplace. For instance, if you live by railroad tracks, trains likely don’t keep you up at night because your brain has learned to ignore the sounds.

Take charge of your mind

The same thing can happen in marriage. As the years go by, we tend to stop noticing our spouses’ strengths. If your spouse has a great sense of humor or a deep faith, or is an incredible parent, eventually your brain won’t register these strengths as special. The things you once admired most about your spouse become commonplace, and you stop noticing them. As a pastor, I regularly see people who are acutely aware of what their spouses aren’t doing and are blind to what they are doing.

One of the most helpful verses for marriages isn’t, in context, about marriage, but when applied to marriage, it’s revolutionary. In Philippians 4:8 (NIV), Paul says we are to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. This calls us to take charge of our minds. In other words, we need to think about what we think about. Rather than letting our thoughts run off on their own, we need to rein them in. This practice, over time, helps you have gratitude with purpose.

If we want to be healthy physically, we won’t eat everything that looks delicious; we’ll exert self-control. In the same way, if we want to be healthy relationally, we shouldn’t think about everything that demands our attention. We need to exert the same self-control with our minds that we exhibit with our bodies. Philippians 4:8 implies that we shouldn’t dwell on whatever is dishonorable, distasteful, frustrating, shameful or deserving of censure. While we can address these issues in counseling, they shouldn’t be things we ruminate on.

To build your marriage with gratitude and purpose, don’t listen to yourself; talk to yourself. Reject negative thoughts and pivot to the positive. You may have to think consciously about doing this at first, but in time it will become second nature. As a result, you will feel more content, and your spouse will feel more noticed and cherished.

Praying involves thinking. If you pray only about what needs to change, it can foster an unhealthy attitude toward your spouse. Before I bring up any issues about my wife with God, I list things I’m thankful for. After all, I’m talking about His daughter (1 John 3:1; Ephesians 5:1), and no dad wants to hear his son-in-law focusing on his daughter’s weaknesses while ignoring her strengths.

Why my wife cried

Filling in that journal for Lisa was a powerful experience for me. Every morning, I had to come up with something new. In expressing my thanks for Lisa, I couldn’t write down the same thing 10 or even five times without it losing its power.

As the months passed, I asked God to remind me of something praiseworthy Lisa had done. By summer,
I started “scanning” Lisa throughout the day, eager to catch something I could write in the journal. Literally, I was training my brain to look for the positive and ignore the negative.

What happens to a husband when his first thought each day is focused on something wonderful about his wife?

Here’s what it did for me: It gave me gratitude with purpose and it changed the way I thought about Lisa, talked about Lisa, prayed for Lisa and talked to Lisa. That journal was a gift to me long before I presented it to her. It fostered an attitude of gratitude in me. It made me feel like a different husband who had a different wife.

Expressing thankfulness for your spouse is like feeding your lawn. Your marriage may be dry and malnourished, but you can restore it to a lush green. Our first summer in Houston, when our lawn-care knowledge was a bit lacking, we awoke to a brown wasteland. My wife did her research for the area and discovered that the lawn just needed to be fed. Two weeks later it was fine.

As we approach the holidays, let’s consider how we can feed our marriages with thanksgiving.

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