Whether a relationship is fantastic, fair-to-middling or foundering, it can almost certainly be improved if couples remember to make frequent use of two simple words—thank you. It is all too easy for couples to fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Feeling ignored can provoke retaliatory slights…and soon a destructive cycle develops that can be toxic to a marriage.

The antidote is the daily expression of appreciation. Why it works: When you let your partner know that you appreciate him, he feels good about himself…is grateful to you for giving him that feeling…and thus is more inclined to express his own appreciation for you. Admittedly, saying thank you can feel forced or unnatural at first if you’ve grown unaccustomed to doing so. To get back in the habit…

Take a tip from dog trainers. The easiest way to teach a puppy to sit or come on command is to give him a treat or praise when he does what you want. This approach works with people, too, so reward the behaviors you want repeated. For instance: If you effuse over the great job he did washing your car, he might surprise you by doing it again without being asked—or even by going a step further and giving it a good wax, too.

Be specific. Instead of vague positivity (“You’re a good guy”), tell your partner precisely what you admire in his behavior or character (“I’m impressed with the way you stay calm when other drivers cut you off”) and why (“I feel safe riding with you because I know you won’t give in to road rage”). You’ve said it all before? It’s OK to repeat yourself—he won’t mind receiving the same praise again.

Seize the moment. Compliments are most effective when delivered during the desirable behavior (“Yum, the way you are rubbing my feet feels fantastic”) because the other person can see exactly what merits your thanks. But later is better than never when it comes to acknowledging gratitude—so if you miss the ideal immediate opportunity, be sure to mention it later (“I’ve been thinking about how sweet you were to my mom last week”).

Let others see how much you value him. Thanking or praising your partner when other people are around provides an extra stroke to his ego…and may even inspire them to treat him with added respect.

Tell and show. In addition to saying thank you, remember that actions speak as loudly as words. You can express appreciation by scratching his back…baking those cookies he loves…or acting out his favorite bedroom fantasy.

Let go of perfectionism. If you find yourself reloading the dishwasher because your husband “didn’t do it right,” your dishes may sparkle but your relationship gets tarnished. Instead of complaining about his low housekeeping standards, remind yourself to feel thankful that he cared enough to want to lighten your workload.

Don’t give up too soon. When a couple has a long-entrenched habit of taking each other for granted, saying thanks a time or two won’t be enough to break the cycle. Commit yourself: Every day for the next month, express appreciation for something specific your partner does or says. Even though he may not reciprocate at first, chances are good that long before your trial period ends, he’ll be telling you how grateful he is to have you in his life.

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