Not being honest about the praise we need to hear leads others to take us for granted. Every time we stifle our need for a “thank you,” it settles in the pit of our stomachs, turning into resentment. Over time, that built up resentment comes out in our actions, leading to passive aggressive behavior and equivocation, and in turn they lead to disintegration of trust and communication. Once plagued by resentment, the most inimical and toxic emotion, relationships are doomed.
Surprisingly, there is only one Ted Talk dedicated to the idea of giving thanks* — this short one, from Dr. Laura Trice, who suggests that we all “be honest with the praise [we] need to hear.”
“…it’s because I’m giving you critical data about me. I’m telling you where I’m insecure. I’m telling you where I need your help. And I’m treating you, my inner circle, like you’re the enemy. Because what can you do with that data? You could neglect me. You could abuse it. Or you could actually meet my need.” – Dr. Laura Trice
Kate is one of my best friends in New York. We share a love for yoga. She’s honest and respectful but is on the timid side. When she andher roommate first started living together, she asked him to share cleaning duties. He said he’d take out the trash. He also told her that “cleaning the bathroom is a woman’s job.” This should have been a warning sign because as it turned out, he’s also the kind of person who, while washing his dishes, won’t wash a single fork Kate may have left in the sink because his fingers and lips didn’t touch it.
Apart from the few months when they had a cleaning lady, and despite the fact that Kate spends 65% of her time living out of her boyfriend’s apartment, she cleaned their shared bathroom by herself, every other week, for the past two years. Her roommate, on the other hand, has cleaned it three times. He has thanked her for cleaning the bathroom, twice. (She showed me the text messages.)
This summer, she said ____ it. “If he’s not going to clean, why should I?”
Trice implies that the fear of getting hurt is what prevents us from asking for thanks. The cure, she says, is knowing that it’s possible our needs could be met. But fear is just one of many reasons and not even the most powerful: There’s guilt, embarrassment, ego, low self-worth. To shutter all of those emotions, we need to know that relationships will end if we don’t ask for the thanks we need.
During the hottest, balmiest days this year, she didn’t clean. Their bathroom turned into a bacterial petri dish within a few weeks. Drawing open the shower curtains, I saw mildew growing everywhere, even in rings around the bottoms of shampoo bottles. Condensation collected mold from the grout and dripped it down the walls. A ring of red soap scum turned the tub into a terracotta urn, and the bottom of the tub itself was slicked with a dangerous grossness spawned by mutual neglect. Their relationship became just as squalid.
They avoided each other when they were home in that 400 square feet apartment; I said hi to him when I was over but they pretended the other didn’t exist. They never talked about how to or who would clean the mossy, red soap scum greenhouse bathroom. It didn’t exist either.
Unable to tolerate the lunacy of trying to get clean in a fungi factory, she finally caved in after two months. Wincing, she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, so hard that her shoulders and neck ached (she had to skip yoga that day), until the walls, the tub, the floor, the mirror…sparkled! But their relationship never did again.
When he came home that night, she expected him to thank her profusely for cleaning. He didn’t.
Days passed and then a week, two weeks. He never thanked her and she never asked him to thank her.
Everything remained — the growing mold and resentment, mixed together.
Remember this, from The Break Up?
Brooke: I just don’t know how we got here. Our entire relationship, I have gone above and beyond for you, for us. I’ve cooked, I’ve picked your shit up off the floor, I’ve laid your clothes out for you like you’re a four year old. I support you, I supported your work. If we ever had dinner or anything I did the plans, I take care of everything. And I just don’t feel like you appreciate any of it. I don’t feel you appreciate me. All I want is to know, is for you to show me that you care.
Gary: Why didn’t you just say that to me”
Brooke: I tried. I’ve tried.
Gary: Never like that, you might have said some things that meant to imply that, but I’m not a mind reader…
If we were “honest with the praise we need to hear,” what would those thank you’s sound like?
Thank you for creating this Excel macro for me because I lied and told everyone I knew how to but really didn’t.
Thank you for calling that client because I was too chicken-hearted to tell him the bad news.
Thank you for coming up with the entire business plan because no one else cared enough to do so.
Thank you for folding the laundry, for bringing home takeout so I don’t have to cook, for taking out the garbage before its pungency forced us to take it out, for always picking up the tab, for always driving, for always doing the things that I want to do and never the things that you want to do.
Thank you for cleaning the bathroom even though I think cleaning the bathroom is a woman’s job.
It’s irresponsible to assume someone should know when we need to be appreciated. No one is a mind reader; everyone has his/her own problems to deal with. I’m sure Kate isn’t a complete princess to live with either. She can be messy, so her roommate probably had his reasons and resentments against her as well. But maybe if they had both talked about their issues honestly, directly and positively, and maybe if she had asked him to thank her for all the little things that she did for them, she wouldn’t be filled with regret and they would still be friends…or at least roommates for next year.
And maybe, if Brooke had asked Gary to appreciate her the way she needed, The Break Up would’ve turned into another movie, called Bruce Almighty.
*Every Ted Talk speaker says “thank you” at the end of their presentation, so when I searched for “thankful” and “gratitude,” every single talk showed up in the results.