Appreciating Gratitude- The Crucial Role Hakaras Hatov Plays in Marriage
By Rabbi Eric Goldman
Upon his return from maariv on Friday night, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter from Kelm, would stop for a moment at the entrance of his home to look around and take stock of all the preparations his wife went through before Shabbos: the aroma of the delicious food, the cleanliness of the house, the splendor of the beautifully set Shabbos table. He would then enter and be ready to thank his wife for all she had done. Surely, the Alter from Kelm could have thanked his wife even without taking those few moments. Why did he feel it was necessary to pause and take in the scene before being able to express his appreciation to her?
Showing gratitude is one of the most crucial aspects of every part of our lives. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly correlated with one’s level of happiness- the more one feels and shows appreciation, the more internal happiness one will feel. Having the ability to see the good that people are doing for us is critical in being able to see the world with optimism and hope.
Of course, Hakaras HaTov- recognizing the good- is something we have been taught for centuries to view as vital in our relationship with Hashem. Many even point to it as the foundation of the connection we forge with Him. The seforim explain that just as hakaras hatov holds a crucial place in our Avodas Hashem, so too it forms the core of our connection to our spouses.
It is human nature to want to be noticed, to feel as if what we are doing matters to someone and that we are not working aimlessly just to get by day after day. Someone who feels as if they are not connected to anyone and that no one appreciates and validates what they do on a daily basis, will search endlessly to gain that validation. (Hence the popularity and addictive nature of social media.) Having someone’s appreciation means that I know that person feels connected to me. That person recognizes that we are working together for something and that we are inextricably bound to one another. The more I feel that person’s appreciation, the more I feel connected to them.
Rav Shlomo Volbe, zt’l writes that when spouses are makir tov to one another, they will each feel elevated and motivated to do more. They know that there is someone out there, someone who they feel is special and unique in the world, who truly values their contributions, no matter how small and mundane. It is that feeling that inspires spouses to continue to do more for each other, to search for ways to make the other one happy. Because they know that the appreciation that will be shown is not just about receiving a reward and recognition, but rather is a manifestation of the depth of the bond between them.
But life gets busy. And in the hectic nature of all things, it is the every day routine that gets forgotten first. Unfortunately, that means that all the things spouses do for each other are at risk of being the first to fall out of our awareness. But forgetting these things does not just mean I failed to notice one little act. It means that I lost sight, if ever so slightly, of the connection I have with my spouse, of how everything they do, they do with me in mind.
And so the Alter from Kelm teaches us such a crucial lesson: stop and look. Take the time to think about what our spouses have done for us. Use our power of imagination to go through in our minds what our spouse must have been busy working on throughout the day. Because that is the only way we can have the real hakaras hatov, and thereby connection, to them.
Take for example: early in the morning, a spouse leaves the house in pristine condition. The dishes are all washed, no toys are lying around and all of the laundry is neatly folded and put away. When that spouse returns home 10 hours later, after a long day of work, the house is pretty much the way it was when they left. But clearly that is not how it was during the day. The dishes had piled up, the toys were in every corner of the house, and the laundry was overflowing. The story is true from the other side as well. The spouse who was out all day leaves feeling pressured and stressed, weighed down by the enormity of what they had to accomplish at work that day. He or she returns hours later, after a full day of work to support the family, still feeling pressured and stressed. It is so easy to stay within our own world and just assume all remained just as it was before and just as it is now. But if they each were to stop and try to imagine what the other experienced over the course of the day, they would realize just how grateful they need to be to each other.
And now, even though the spouses were separated all day, it was as if they were never apart. Gratitude has the power to bind. To make spouses feel as if they are standing with each other even if they may be miles apart.
It shouldn’t only be limited to acts and accomplishments. Appreciating our spouses middos and strengths shows an even deeper level of recognition. The deeper the recognition, and the subsequent appreciation, the stronger the bond that ensues.
A simple thank you is all it takes. But it is the ability to recognize, to be makir, that allows us to get there.
Rabbi Eric Goldman is a part of the Skokie Community Kollel. He also works with TAG Chicago as well as The Hebrew Theological College, both in the Fasman Yeshiva High School and the Beis Medresh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.