There is a lot of talk among marriage counselors about the 4 A’s that can spell doom for marriages. These “big four” are abuse, addictions, adultery, and abandonment. There is another set of four A’s, though. This second set is much more positive and recommended for every marriage. They are appreciation, apology, attention, and affection.
Appreciation. When couples come to see me for their first session, they often want to know what they can immediately start doing to move their marriage towards a more positive place. This is also true for individuals who come in hoping their spouse will eventually join them for couples counseling. My first suggestion is “appreciate your partner more.” I say this because, a lot of times, spouses can become very focused on the negative things their partner does, or get hung up on the things their spouse doesn’t do, and loose sight of what the other person is doing right.
Appreciation means saying, “Thank you,” when your spouse does something nice or thoughtful. It also means stating your gratitude when your spouse does something you think they should have been doing for months or that you think is just common courtesy. Appreciation is for when your husband brings you flowers and for when he puts his socks in the hamper. It is for when your wife lets you pick the radio station in the car or offers to drive so you can nap or enjoy the scenery, and when she hurries in the shower so you’ll have some hot water. It is for when the dishes get put away or the trash gets taken out or the kids are given a bath or when you are surprised by a romantic dinner. Appreciation is for big things but is just as much for the little every day things.
Appreciation is most effective when it is specific. That is, when it is expressed in reference to specific behaviors you observed and liked. “I really liked the way you took time to look at Katie’s drawings, even though you were in a hurry to get out the door on time. I really appreciate it when you give our kids attention like that.” Or, “I really appreciate the way you didn’t snap back at me last night when I was cranky. Thank you for that. It means a lot to me.”
You can give appreciations in person, over the phone, or by text or email or note. Just remember to notice, and comment on, what your spouse does “right” rather than just focusing on, or complaining about, the things he or she does “wrong.”
Apologies. This seems simple. When you know you did something wrong or said something hurtful, you go to the person you wronged or offended and say, “I’m sorry.” For many people, this is much easier said than done, though. We want to explain or defend ourselves, rationalize our actions or words, make excuses, blame the other person, or anything else but take responsibility. It is very humbling to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
Apologies have to be sincere. You can’t say you’re sorry for shouting something hurtful when you’re angry and then turn around and do the same thing next time you’re angry. If you keep apologizing for a certain behavior (swearing, drinking too much, not putting the lid back on the toothpaste), but continue engaging in that behavior over and over, the apology means nothing. It is just a way for you to try and clear your conscience but it holds no weight in your partner’s heart or mind. They know you are just saying words of regret out of a sense of obligation or habit.