How Gratitude Can Spark Romantic Relationships

One of my favourite articles about gratitude is written by Sarah Algoe, Shelley Gable, and Natalya Maisel (2010). They wrote about the interpersonal effects of gratitude and indebtedness in romantic relationships. The outcome was very powerful and the research setup can be used as a positive psychology intervention for couples.

Gratitude and Indebtedness

In a romantic relationship, both partners take actions to please the other one. This can elicit several emotions such as gratitude and indebtedness. Algoe et al. (2010) looked

into these two emotions that are characterized as an emotional response to a costly and intentionally provided benefit. Also, gratitude and indebtedness are associated with the intention to repay for the received benefit. Gratitude leads to an internal motivation, and indebtedness to an external motivation to reciprocate.

Thoughtful actions

Algoe et al. (2010) asked sixty-seven couples to keep a diary for two weeks. The participants had to record their own and their partner’s thoughtful actions, their emotions, and their relationship well-being. By coupling the data of the two partners, they were able to see whether a thoughtful action of the participant was recognized by the partner and if he or she acknowledged the action accordingly. Algoe et al. (2010) found that a partner’s thoughtful action predicted an increase in feelings of gratitude and indebtedness. However, only feeling gratitude, not indebtedness, on one day predicted an increase in relationship well-being of the participant the next day. When these feelings of gratitude are noticed by the partner, the relationship well-being of the partner also increases.

Positive psychology intervention

It is possible to do the same exercise from the research with couples who want to improve their relationship. Let both partners keep a diary for a week or two and discuss the answers in the next consult. Did they recognize and acknowledge what their partner did for them? How did it make them feel? By practicing the partners can become more aware of the thoughtful actions of their partner and respond to them with gratitude. This exercise can induce an upward spiral and improve the relationship well-being; it can be a powerful positive psychology intervention for partners in a romantic relationship.


Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L. & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 217-233. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01273.x

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