We all want to feel valued. When we feel appreciated, we’re more likely to cooperate, collaborate, and deal constructively with issues that arise. This is true for any relationship, and especially for marriage.
It’s easy to take a spouse’s fine qualities for granted. Yet couples who remember to compliment each other often are usually much happier. For example, suppose Carmen is annoyed with her husband Joe for procrastinating after saying he’d do a chore. (She doesn’t seem to notice when he does promptly do what he agreed to do.) To fix the situation, she’s tried nagging, calling him lazy, and pouting. Yet nothing changed, except he’s become good at tuning her out.
The Power of a Good Compliment
So Carmen decides to try something different. She makes a point to notice when Joe completes a chore promptly. She saw that he bought the air conditioner the day after he agreed to. She tells him, smiling, “I appreciate you for buying the air conditioner so quickly. It means a lot to me to be comfortable at home when it’s so hot outside.”
Joe smiles too, maybe shrugs his shoulders modestly, gives her a hug, or compliments her in return for suggesting that they get the air conditioner. He too likes to stay cool inside on a hot day.
Behaviors That Get Rewarded Get Repeated
These responses could all occur in the short run: she expresses appreciation, he feels valued, and both feel sweetly connected to each other.
How about in the long run? Compliments increase the likelihood that the person you’ve expressed appreciation to will do what you liked more often. A behavior that’s rewarded is more likely to get repeated.
Realizing this, Carmen pays attention to her husband’s good traits, behaviors, and appearance. When he assists their child with his homework, she tells him how she appreciates his patience and willingness to help. When he completes any chore, she thanks him, even if he didn’t do it as quickly as she hoped. When he does it promptly, she gives him an extra compliment for that. When he looks handsome in a blue shirt he rarely wears that matches the color of his eyes, she tells him. Of course, he’s then likely then to wear the shirt more often.
Compliments Benefit the Giver
As shown by Carmen and Joe’s interaction, the spouse who receives a compliment is likely to feel more loving toward the one who gives it. Joe instinctively responded to Carmen’s compliment by giving her one. Win-win!
When we focus on complimenting our partner regularly, we actually increase our positive feelings for our mate. By looking for opportunities to express appreciation, we notice what we like more often. We pay less attention to irritations that are minor in the grand scheme of things. The wish to please each other grows. We gain more intimacy.
This scenario happens with others besides our intimate partner. Being complimentary toward friends, relatives, coworkers, and so on nurtures our relationships and helps us create a happier, more optimistic outlook.
Are Insincere Compliments Effective?
A genuine compliment is going to go much further than a false one. Most of us can sniff out insincerity. Because so much of a message is given by the speaker’s body language and tone of voice, we sense when the words of praise don’t match one’s nonverbal signals.
How to Give a Heartfelt Compliment
Because compliments are so important for supporting a good relationship, the first thing that happens in a Marriage Meeting as explained in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is for couples to express appreciation to each other. When I explain to express appreciation, I say:
- Begin each appreciative comment with the words like “I appreciate,” “I value,” or “I like.” This may feel awkward at first but becomes comfortable with practice.
- Be specific in how you express yourself. Mention exactly what the person did that you liked, or exactly what about your partner’s appearance pleases you.
- Mention a positive character trait that your partner demonstrated by doing what you liked.
For example, a wife might say to her husband, “I appreciate how kind and patient you were with my aunt when we were visiting her and you showed her how to fix the problem with her computer.” The above italics are to show inclusion of character traits and specificity.
Why to Start a Compliment with “I”
A husband told me he’s more comfortable saying “Thank You” than by starting a compliment with “I.”
Of course, saying “thank you” shows good manners, and we like to be thanked. It’s also easier for many of us express appreciation with a simple “thank you.”
Yet by saying “I appreciate you for” or “I liked it when you … ” we are putting ourselves and our heart into the message. We’re being vulnerable, opening our insides to be viewed by the receiver of our compliment. The receiver is likely to feel the compliment giver’s sincerity. Starting with “I appreciate” can take courage, especially for people who grew up in an atmosphere where they weren’t encouraged to recognize and express their feelings. Yet it’s worth developing the habit, and it becomes easier with practice.
Be Specific and Shun Aunt Fanny Statements
A common way to compliment someone is by saying something like, “You’re beautiful,” “You’re caring,” or “You’re responsible.” I learned in graduate school to refer to such messages as “Aunt Fanny Statements.” Because although they’re compliments, one could think, “Yes, and so is my Aunt Fanny.”
Being specific by telling your wife, “I appreciate how caring you were by making tea and toast for me when I was in bed with a cold last week,” packs more punch than saying that you appreciate her for being so caring. Similarly, telling your wife, “I love how beautiful you look in your new blue dress that matches your eyes,” makes more of an impact than just saying, “I like how beautiful you look.”
When we’re specific in how we compliment someone, we’re saying in effect that out of all the people in the world you matter to me, and in your own unique way.
Phrase Compliments Positively
During initial couple’s therapy sessions, I make it a point to ask both partners how they first met and what attracted them to each other. Doing so helps set a positive tone. It reminds them that regardless of whatever relationship challenge brings them to my office, underneath what’s stressing them now is a firm foundation on which trust and appreciation can grow.
When a wife told me what traits she first found attractive in her husband, she said, they have similar values and interests, and “he’s not bad looking.” I explained that I’m picky about words and helped her change not bad looking to “handsome.” Her husband clearly perked up when she described him as handsome. The unconscious doesn’t recognize a negative. The unconscious hears “bad looking” more clearly than it hears the “not” in front of it.
Also, avoid backhanded compliments like, “I appreciate that you finally emptied the garbage.” Just say, “I appreciate you for remembering to empty the garbage.” So phrase your compliments straightforwardly and positively.
Appreciating Character Traits
We all have a mixture of good character traits and areas in which we have room to grow. Examples of good ones include humility, generosity, confidence, honesty, gratitude, understanding, forgiveness, commitment, and others. When we compliment someone for showing a good character trait, it can feel like we’re responding to more than to a specific behavior or to their physical appearance. We’re appreciating an essential, enduring quality they possess. By doing so, we’re communicating on a soul to soul level.
Cultivating a Lifelong Habit
Making it a habit to notice daily what we value in others is well worth doing. The key to giving compliments and becoming good at expressing appreciation is to notice what we like about the people around us and pay attention to the details. Each complimentary thought or message we give supports our relationships and enhances our environment.