In the summer of 1867, Gen. George Custer left his post with the Seventh Cavalry in western Kansas and traveled hundreds of miles to spend a day with his wife, Libby, back at Fort Riley.
Historian Evan Connell reports that Libby was incredibly grateful and “thought it was marvelous” that he'd travel so far to visit her. The Army didn't share her feelings of gratitude. It court marshaled Custer for being absent without leave and suspended him for a year without pay.
There are several lessons that Custer's misadventure can teach us as we head toward Valentine's Day on Thursday.
•First, if you're seeking gratitude, know your audience. Sara B. Algoe, PhD, notes that social scientists have long known that gratitude results from “an intentional gesture that is of value to the recipient and costly to the benefactor.”
But, she adds one more crucial element, what she calls “perceived responsiveness to the self.” Perceived responsiveness is the feeling that we're “understood, valued and cared for” by the other person.
Algoe reports that perceived responsiveness is actually the best predictor of gratitude. She explains, “It really is the thought that counts.” The more it appears that you're thinking about me, the more your thoughts count.
I may feel grateful if you buy me a shirt. But I'll feel especially grateful if you go out of your way (making it more costly and more intentional) to find a shirt that is the exact color and style that matches my taste and personality.
Libby felt understood, valued and cared for by her husband's journey to see her. That was good. The Army saw dereliction of duty. That was bad.
DSecond, Algoe explains that “the emotion of gratitude is associated with relationship formation.” The more grateful I feel toward you, the more likely I'll interpret your other actions in a positive way.
You've gone out of your way to do nice things for me in the past, so I tend to trust your motives today. This helps our relationship grow stronger.
This strengthening process also has long-term effects. Algoe found a positive effect on the relationship a full month after a series of small favors had created the gratitude. Favors you do today will help your marriage in the future.
In 1893, seventeen years after her husband's death at the Little Big Horn, Libby Custer wrote about the visit at Ft. Riley with fondness and gratitude.
•Third, Algoe explains that “gratitude may initiate a relationship-building cycle between recipient and benefactor.” This is not a matter of “indebtedness” or “pay-backs.” It's a natural desire to do kindnesses for someone who's shown you kindness.
Of course, this requires that I see your actions as acts of friendship and not manipulative attempts to gain my gratitude, or worse yet, to put me in your debt. If that happens, my response will be resentment and the fact I “owe you” makes it all the worse.
•Finally, Agloe found feelings of gratitude helped integrate people into a cohesive, cooperative team, solidifying their relationship. As ScienceDaily.com explains, gratitude “ultimately helps us to find, remind and bind ourselves to people who seem to care about our welfare.” As a result, the sense of gratitude ends up benefiting the person who gives as well as the one who receives.
ScienceDaily.com adds that “by temporarily changing the perspective on the relationship, everyday gratitude may work as a booster shot for ongoing romantic relationships.”
On Valentine's Day, think of things to do that show you understand and value your spouse's needs. The resulting gratitude will be a booster shot that every marriage can use.
©2012, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan’s website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.