Using gratitude to heal a relationship in the nick of time

Earlene was poised and elegant as she made her way to the sofa in my counseling office. In her late 60s, she spoke with confidence but also with a twinge of anger in her voice. Her husband  recently had retired and she was feeling the pressure of being with him 24/7.

“He’s driving me crazy!” she lamented. “I give him instructions on the simplest things, like making coffee or operating a blender, and then I end up repeating myself 10 times before the task is completed. For goodness’ sake, the man was an engineer for 40 years! Have I spoiled him so badly that I’ve made him helpless? The truth is, no matter how much you love a guy, it’s not easy to be around him all the time. I used to miss him while he was at work. Now I miss missing him!”

We both laughed, but I got her meaning. So I suggested she do two things. The first was to write a blessed list. That’s a list of everything she loved and valued about her husband, everything he was or did that blessed her. The second was to persuade her husband to see a doctor, just to make sure there was nothing wrong with him.

Two weeks later, she returned with a lengthy list of her husband’s wonderful attributes. He was a good father and grandfather; he was an excellent provider; he was funny, faithful and protective. The list went on and on.

As she finished reading her copious list to me, she laid it on her lap and said: “I really have to thank you. Your gratitude exercise has changed the way I look at things. It made me realize what a great man I’m married to — even if he does drive me crazy at times.”

“Keep reading your list,” I offered. “Read it at least three times a day for the rest of the month, then once a day after that. Add to it when you think of new things or when he does something that is especially endearing. The list can never get too long.”

Earlene came to see me a couple more times for some encouragement and accountability. She was a quick study, and she practiced what she was learning. I encouraged her to keep reading and focusing on her husband’s favorable qualities.

Three years passed and I received a letter with Earlene’s name and a Montana return address. She was living with her daughter, and she came across my card when she was going through some old papers.

“I wanted to give you an update on my life. Four months after I came for counseling, I finally convinced my husband to see a doctor. The doctor discovered he had a brain tumor. He died five months later!”

“I am so grateful I had made a blessed list,” she wrote. “It changed my heart. I was reacting so negatively until I realized all the good my husband brought into my life. My paradigm shifted and I was able to love him as he ought to be loved before he died. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I not come to see you. I would have grumbled and groused until it was too late to show him how thankful I was to be his wife. Embracing appreciation in place of my frustration was a gift to him, but it was a gift to me as well, one I will never forget.”

While I always have believed in the benefit of gratitude to improve mood, Earlene’s letter helped to strengthen my conviction. Now I recommend writing a blessed list not just for folks in relationship challenges, but also for those feeling the pain of grief and loss, as well as people who struggle with self-esteem issues.

As Earlene’s list confirmed, an attitude of gratitude can make all the difference.