How does one cultivate genuine gratitude?
July 15, 2011 6:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I cultivate gratitude for my wife, without feeling like I'm sucking up to her or giving-in to her?

We've been married 15+ years, even though we are pretty different: she is more of a "thinker," pragmatic/ controlling/ domineering/ strong willed/ opinionated- at least I perceive her to be. I tend to be a "feeler," more sensitive/artistic/spiritual/mindful. She has a strong career/earns a ton of money. I have a "good job" that I don't really value.

Because of this dynamic, I have vilified her to a certain degree. I have also sought escape through substance abuse, which has exacerbated the dominant/subordinate nature of the relationship. (what makes this worse is that I have suffered from self-esteem issues nearly my entire life - I see a therapist)

To the extent I have taken substances off the table, the more negative thoughts/ feelings about her surface - I don't want this.

I want to focus on/ cultivate the good/positive that is there, but not feel like, by doing so, I'm subordinate or helping to "build a monster."

How do I become "more of a man," "less of a nice guy," while still cultivating the gratitude that I actually still have for her?

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you have to take drugs to suppress negative thoughts about your partner, I think that's a pretty clear sign that they're not the right one for you. Those negative thoughts and feelings aren't just annoying mosquitoes to be killed. They contain valuable information about what makes you comfortable and what makes you uncomfortable. You should heed this information to increase your overall well-being.

If you're afraid of cultivating the positive aspects of your relationship you're going to turn her into a monster, it sounds pretty certain that you're in the wrong relationship. Positive aspects of a relationship are supposed to be positive. But you treat them as a negative. That's not how it's supposed to work.
posted by bleep at 6:40 PM on July 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

How do I cultivate gratitude for my wife, without feeling like I'm sucking up to her or giving-in to her? ... How do I become "more of a man," "less of a nice guy," while still cultivating the gratitude that I actually still have for her?

First, I think the you need to examine this assumption you seem to hold in which gratitude is equated with being unmanly or weak. There is nothing inherently emasculating about feeling and expressing thankfulness and appreciation for anyone or anything, but as long as the two seem related to you, I don't think cultivating genuine gratitude may be quite possible.

Is this an assumption that comes from your particular relationship with your wife (for example, does she belittle you when you've expressed gratitude in the past)? Or is it something that predates your relationship with her?
posted by scody at 6:49 PM on July 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

My interpretation of what you've said - and there are some things that I would need clarified in order to give a better answer (how are you vilifying her; what monster are you building) is that you're not in love with her but you're trying to force yourself to be and to hold onto the good stuff (somewhere, anywhere). Which is well-intention but really doesn't help either of you.

The reality of the situation appears to be that you actively dislike prominent parts of her personality, feel inferior, and therefore escape through substances. The more you escape, the more all the characteristics you dislike about her come to the fore and you feel worse.

I can't see anything positive in that relationship either when you are or are not abusing substances. In fact, by remaining in the relationship all you appear to be doing is undermining your own self confidence no matter what.

IMO, gratitude is not committed love. I am grateful for the things that people do for me - but I don't want to necessarily be shacked up with them for the rest of my life.
posted by mleigh at 7:20 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's one thing to be a pragmatic thinker, or even have strong opinions, it's another to be domineering or controlling. What happens if you try to "stand up to" her - eg suppose you two were deciding where to go for dinner and she suggests a place and you suggest a different place -- what would she do or say? Are you caught in a pattern of giving in to avoid arguments (while secretly being resentful each time it happens)? If that seems right, you might think about why it's important to you to avoid arguments - is she violent or shouty or mean during arguments? Or do you just dislike conflict or disagreement of any kind and expect that she will see your discomfort and respond a certain way? (If that seems right you might look up the classic AskMe answer about "ask" vs "guess" culture)

As for gratitude:
Why did you marry her in the first place?

What are her "public" positive attributes (the ones everyone can see)?

What are her "private" positive attributes (the ones that you see in your private life together, or which are especially noteworthy or special to you)?

How does she help you or show her love/consideration/caring for you?
Does she do things that you know are "hard for her" - for example, holding back
How do you help her or show your love/consideration/caring etc for her?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:21 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let me ask this: How much does this perceived power imbalance bother your wife?

It strikes me that this could be entirely in your own mind. Are you fighting a battle with yourself rather than with your wife?

As a person who can get wrapped up in my own interpretations of events and my own insecurities and project a lot, let me tell you something, NOTHING is worse than the realization that you've gone and behaved like a jerk based on something that NO ONE besides you even thinks about or sees. It feels HORRIBLE. It's the realization that you're the bad guy in the story.

The solution is to vigorously distinguish between fantasy and reality. Verify everything and get as many concrete outside perspectives as possible. Do not fail to remember that there is an objective reality that almost never aligns perfectly with your feelings.

This story you're telling yourself about not being the man could be a fairy tale based on vague cultural tropes and one-liners or something your dad said 30 years ago that means absolutely nothing in the real world and has no relevance to what really matters.
posted by Nixy at 7:21 PM on July 15, 2011 [11 favorites]

oops - one line was cut off:

Does she do things that you know are "hard for her" - for example, holding back on embarrassing comments in public since you asked her to, or letting you take charge of something even though she is champing at the bit to be in charge herself?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:24 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you identified specific behaviors of hers that make you feel controlled and dominated? You shouldn't be grateful for those. She should avoid doing that. And she should be saying things that at least implicitly reassure you she respects you, as you should do in turn.

On the other hand, if it's some internally motivated low self-esteem that makes you feel "one down" in the relationship and she's not actually doing specific things to dominate you, then you should focus on your self-esteem issues, call out your ressentiment for what it is, and enlist her help in building you up as you learn to grant her the same due respect.

I imagine the truth falls somewhere in-between and that it'll be tough to decide what's what. Just be honest with yourself and fair to her, forgive each other for the past / cancel existing emotional debts, aim constantly at mutual praise, and consider getting counseling as a couple.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:32 PM on July 15, 2011

I'll skip the relationship specific stuff and just put a word about gratitude out there.

Gratitude has nothing to do with being "manly" or not. It isn't about power structure or control. It is simply about being thankful for everything that has been given to you. Which, if you pay attention, is just about everything in your life.

Start with gratitude towards life. You are alive, you get the chance to experience the world. You didn't earn that, it was given to you. Likewise, you have relationships. There may be problems, but they probably have some good as well. That is something you were given by others.

Just try to stop a few times a day, take a deep breath, and appreciate that you are alive, surrounded by choices and that your options are mostly gifts. That is gratitude. If you do that, you may find that you have gratitude for your wife's actions as well.
posted by meinvt at 8:13 PM on July 15, 2011 [16 favorites]

Have you tried to talk to her about any of this? Have you tried to express to each other what is actually going on inside your heads and try to align those things?
posted by 3FLryan at 8:23 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

This all sounds like very polite code for "I can't stand my wife." Why can't you leave her?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:05 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey there, best of luck with all this. I think a good first stop would be to have a look through this book: 5 Love Languages (there's also a website I see)

I'm not sure if it will promote gratitude per se, but it should definitely help you to see some of her unique features and at least learn how to care for her and demonstrate that. Actively loving someone is a great way to show them you appreciate them.

Sorry about the many religious references in the book if that's not your bag (not mine either but the book works either way).
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 9:10 PM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Um, are you an INFP? This is a familiar story for men on the INFP forum, to say the least... so if you are, consider, well, further discussion on one of the INFP forums around. One thing about these forums-- especially when focused on NFs (which you say you are) and INFPs in particular-- is that it does open up a whole new world of self-respect. You need to be around people who're like you, and who you can tell are pretty awesome, and then you may start to notice why you are awesome too. I know I'm going against the grain here on mefi, but 'more therapy' isn't necessarily the 'magic answer' every time, especially with something like self-esteem. It really helps to actually do the right things. Consider a cognitive-behavioral therapist if you're currently in talk therapy, anyway. Step #1 is to surround yourself with more people who can mirror your better qualities. Step #2 (longer-term) is to basically redo your life. You can't keep this up; if you are an artistic/intuitive/feeler (INFP or INFJ), you're basically killing yourself doing a job you don't love. You are going to have a whole lot more trouble appreciating your SO or kicking your addiction if you're not actively doing positive things about your life. When you want to focus on something, when you're working on it (even if you fail at first!), you'll start to discover energy and self-respect you didn't know you had.

Work to your strengths, in other words. You know have these gifts-- you listed them. It's ridiculous not to use them and admire or rest others' gifts at this point. It's counter-productive. I think admiring your wife's gifts is down the line, after you can admire your own strengths. If you can't do that, it's an exercise in self-defeat. If you did admire her and were grateful, you'd likely feel worse about yourself, not better. So... don't just take my word for it. Talk to more INFPs. And figure out what you want-- even one of the things you want-- out of life, and do it. INFPs (and intuitive/feeler types in general) are happier pursuing their passions even if it loses them security. You'll be able to stand up to people who say it's impractical, believe me. Being an NF is not wimpy. We're quite stubborn. It's all a question of being in the right place to demonstrate that backbone, which can get you the respect from the TJ types (and specifically, your wife) that you almost certainly need.

Alright, here's where I get to your wife and/or the TJness (Rationalist dominant do-er) aspects of her. (Note: I assume you know some of this lingo since you mentioned some standard descriptive phrases). Anyway: um, INFPs/NFs are awesome, yes, but so are TJs, especially women. It doesn't detract from you that such a hardcore individual is your wife-- it genuinely reflects well. After all, aren't they smart, practical, tough and badass all around? And she chose you, right? So. You don't have to try to jump straight to gratitude, but you might consider that TJs-- especially NTJ women-- tend to want equal partners, not submissives, and that's what NFs can easily become (of any gender). We aren't submissive my nature, and merely being more 'feeling' doesn't translate to submission in any way. I don't know... it's a long-term and difficult project for some NFs/INFPs to admire the TJs in their families, especially when there's low self-esteem involved. It doesn't help that they aren't the most patient of sorts, and tend to be blunt, not so nurturing, and unintentionally hurtful. It's hard to always be the patient one. It's tiring to always translate TJ-ese to NF-ese. I personally think it's worth it (their logic can be refreshing! their bluntness can be reassuring! their rationality can be depended upon! also they're secretly softies, but shhhh don't tell them I told you). However... if, after you've made some progress in your own life, you haven't really seen the badass side of your wife as a Good Thing... well, not all of us are suited to be their partners, y'know? And both you & she deserve a good partner that suits your needs.

One thing you can do is observe the other TJs (and any Rationals and/or NTs) that you know, besides your wife. Almost all NFs have INTP/ENTP friends (just look up their type descriptions and think about it). All of us know some ISTJs and ESTJs; you may not be friends with them, but you may be able to see their good qualities 'cause they're not on your case and not intimately involved with you. Think about your relationship to these people. Aren't they awesome? What do they have in common with your wife? What might be some aspects of their behavior and thought pattern that you really appreciate in them but maybe don't notice or no longer notice in your wife?

One thing that really helped me make peace with people is learning to genuinely appreciate difference in theory, even difference I don't really want to be around for long. As an abstract feeler, it helps to run through these relationships in your own mind before practicing changed behavior with real people. There's still stuff that frustrates me about TJs. They're so bossy! Oh man (my mom's an INTJ, so I know it well). They always think they're right (though this is a bit of a smokescreen, actually). Once you lose their respect, it's like you barely exist. Ugh. Frustrating! It can be hard to have a heart-to-heart, to say the least. It's up to you to train them there (I sort of trained my mom). They're trainable, though-- that is, if you make an effort to demonstrate how to talk about feelings (especially in a rational manner), they learn fast. No TJ will become your ideal confidante (probably), but you may become hers, and that feels amazing. To earn the trust of your wife in that fashion, if you make an effort to do so-- that would make you feel grateful beyond belief. To know this tough, rational, no-nonsense person really can open up to you, because that is your skill, at your best: getting people to that point. That makes one feel great, and grateful.

I don't know if it's too late for that in your particular relationship or not. I mean, usually this is a foundation you build early on. But if there's any hope for your relationship to stabilize in a genuine, sincere fashion, that's where it lies.
posted by reenka at 9:48 PM on July 15, 2011 [16 favorites]

My answers depend on what sort of person your wife is, and whether she despises and has contempt for you when you display flaws or weaknesses, or loves you and is committed to you in full awareness of your shortcomings.

If she has contempt for you, even if she is uncomfortable about it and still loves you, the two of you-- not you alone-- have a serious problem and should seek out couples therapy with a disciple of John Gottman if not Gottman himself.

If she does love you and value the marriage, and something about your tone suggests to me that this is the case, I think you ought to use the mindfulness you have so wisely cultivated to delve into the sources of your desire to vilify her.

I suspect you'll find at least two separate black smokers down in those depths.

One is probably fed by your understandable insecurity and fear that she will leave you for someone better. If you tell yourself she's awful long enough, you may in fact survive such an event in better shape, but you will poison both of you if she stays around, or you may in fact drive her away.

If you can move back and realize that she really does love you and is not going anywhere unless you force her to, I have every confidence you will be able to cap this off and feel much better.

But if you're at all like me, you may discover at a very deep level in yourself that you have a tendency to blame women that seems to have little to do with being rejected sexually or treated one way or another by your mother. I think this is original equipment for many men, but not necessarily all. I'd say it's about as widely distributed as fear of heights and and at least as variable in intensity.

I take worrying about being enough of a man to be one of the cardinal signs of this tendency to blame women.

I think it's nearly impossible to stanch the flow altogether, but you can notice it and keep it from doing too much damage when it does surface.

Don't worry about creating a monster; the stronger you can make her, the more forcefully she can love you, and the more she is likely to want to.
posted by jamjam at 10:36 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was coming on to hit the MBTI angle too - from your description, I got the same things as reenka mentioned, so I'll try to hit on a few other things:

If you're a strong feeler and she's a thinker, chances are you are imagining a dynamic that she either doesn't recognise or give importance to; when you read deep meaning into every word and action (which is what us INF's tend to do REALLY WELL, whether or not it's accurate or helpful...), just do so in the recognition that she is probably not reading the situation in the same way.

If anything, she probably has the mindset of being the person who takes care of you and the day-to-day business of life. She probably bases her identity off that role, and to a certain extent enjoys it, even as she grows frustrated with you for the things that define an INFP (which, like reenka mentioned, your post screams to me as well!): being a dreamer, living inside your head, always seeing connections between things, having powerful and accurate intuition about people, wanting to avoid confrontation and maintain peace if at all possible, and, the most relevant to this situation - building a narrative in your head that doesn't always match with the narrative others build in the same situation.

My feeling is that if you talk to her openly about feeling some resentment and lack of gratitude, she will be surprised. Obviously we don't know the whole story here, and the details you did give are sketchy about her perspective in all this; what that tells me is that you don't actually know her perspective. Only she does.

As another point of anecdata, I'm a strong J (and my husband is an extremely strong P), and I know that I can carry resentment if he doesn't do things to my schedule or in the way I expect, and that affects the level of affection I feel willing to show at times. That's not his fault, and I'm working *really* hard to accept his pace and know that if he says he'll do the dishes, he will...even if it takes a week (or two).

This will be controversial on askmefi, but you may want to stop therapy too (assuming it's talk therapy - it does sound like your addiction needs treatment). But hear me out on the talk therapy: INFP's need to be pushed to get outside that internal narrative and sometimes talking about people instead of to people can actually make things worse. You may get more benefit from spending that time on date nights with your wife, trying to be open and honest with her about how you feel, but also listening to how she feels. If you aren't constantly reminding yourself that she doesn't think like you and that her internal process is very different, it's easy to vilify her. Knowledge and empathy breed compassion - by making the problem abstract, as your wording suggests you have - you cut off the enormous part of yourself that has a capacity for life-altering compassion.

Last thought: get a new job. INFP's need a calling, not just a career. Find a way to make that happen. It may bring more positive change than anything else anyone suggests. My husband is in his mid-30's, and he just left his career path in IT to pursue a long-held desire to teach HS English; I've never seen him happier, and we're fighting a whole lot less. Plus, he's suddenly starting to appreciate all the little things I do as he takes steps into my world for the first time (I am also a HS English teacher). I'm happier, he's happier, and all it took was taking that step he'd been afraid to take for years. What is that step for you?
posted by guster4lovers at 11:30 PM on July 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

It sounds like the stress of quitting drugs or alcohol is at least partly making you feel accusatory towards her. Addiction and trying to kick a habit does all kinds of things to your head. Your frustration goes up; it's easy to get pissed off and blame others.

I think instead of trying to force yourself to feel grateful, right now is the time to start developing your hobbies, and have some healthy "me" time.

When you feel calmer, and pretty good about life, it's time to approach her and have a sincere talk about your fears. How you feel like you want to appreciate her but it's tough. You're scared of being controlled.

If you guys can both let your guards down and talk yourselves with some vulnerability, I think it would go a long way into making your partnership seem more like a team, instead of a war which it currently sounds like.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:48 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

From this TED talk by Brené Brown:
The problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, Here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. When we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then, we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin.
posted by jon1270 at 3:46 AM on July 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

In the absence of any specific information that your wife is actually belittling you, it looks like you envy her, blame her for your envy, and have opted out under the guise of being the fluffy type.

Now you are forcing yourself to face reality and your resentment is so great that you want to disguise it by expressing its opposite, gratitude. The trouble is, though, either your resentment is well-founded (no info available) or you have a win-lose mentality in which expressing thanks is an act of submission. In fact, if you have a win-lose mentality any given act can ONLY ever be an act of submission or domination. If that's the case then you have effectively been pretending to be something you're not (submissive), and drinking/using to cloud your sensorium and maintain your disguise, and now you want to use outward behaviours to maintain that disguise. I suspect what you really want is for your wife to submit, and anything you do to make this happen may come as a nasty surprise to her as she discovers her marriage isn't what she thought it was.

I think this is a therapy-level problem, and nothing we suggest short of therapy is really going to get you started here.
posted by tel3path at 5:07 AM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

What kind of household did you grow up in? Are you copying what you learned there? If so, there are ways to unlearn the negative parts.

I would suggest you become the person you wish you were (or head there) and the relationship will sort itself out. You'll be able to be your own man without worrying about her approval and she'll either love it or hate it or, more than likely, end up changing herself, possibly without even realizing.

The problem with one dominant and one non-dominant partner is that ends up a self-creating cycle. The dominant person starts thinking, well if I don't, NO one will! And the other person starts thinking, Well, they're just going to take over anyway- there's no point in me getting mixed up in this- it'll just cause friction. And then everyone's resentful.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:24 AM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you've been using for the whole relationship, and then stop, it's going to change you --- and thus the relationship. Issues that you could ignore before may become bigger problems. Your whole personality can change. This may result in a situation where being together doesn't work -- if you're a different person, you may not be a person who can be with her.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:24 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Start a list of things you're grateful for.

They don't have to be all around your wife and your relationship with your life, they can include your freedom from substances, etc. Sit down at some point every day (you could use for this, or 10 minutes each morning after you get up, whatever) and Add to the list. Then read the list again. It will get long, and then grown exponentially, because by fostering an attitude of gratitude in yourself you will find there are Many things in life that you're profoundly grateful for.

(although I agree with other commenters that there sounds like there's a lot of other stuff going on here, but this is my answer to the question you asked).
posted by ldthomps at 8:57 PM on July 16, 2011

go to therapy. it helps... and go with her, if you can!
posted by dreamsofhorses at 8:17 PM on July 18, 2011

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