The Gift of Gratitude

By Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D

 “‘Tis better to give than to receive,” or so they say.  I’m not going to argue with that, but I am going to suggest that there are aspects of receiving that are just as important.  Gratitude is something that many have trouble expressing, whether it is for a simple gift or for the larger things that may influence or change one’s life for the better.  The importance of gratitude in relationships is no small matter. On the small scale, being able to say “thank you” in a remotely believable way, whether or not we mean it, is a matter of good social skills. Most people can pull that off—for those that can’t, well, that’s a whole different article. On a larger scale, the ability to let others give to you is just as important as the ability to give to others.  So much so that people who do not have the capacity to truly receive and be grateful probably do not have the capacity for healthy intimacy.

I once had a boyfriend who was honest and generous to a fault, but who was seemingly unable to experience or express true gratitude.  This first became apparent one holiday season when various people, including his family members and myself, began to inquire what he might like for a present.  He insisted that he didn’t want or need anything, and that we should not bother.  When we went ahead anyway, he expressed his thanks appropriately, but went on to demonstrate, through various behaviors, that what we had given him was disappointing or had missed the mark in some way. It was true that he could well afford to buy himself anything he wanted, but this was not the point.  Even though he gave generously he was not able to accept others giving to him.  He knew that the people close to him were going to be giving him gifts despite his protests, but he insisted on not cooperating with letting them have the pleasure of giving.  Although it may seem trivial, in fact it was representative of a larger and much more serious relationship problem.  It turns out that this man was restricted in most areas of emotional intimacy.  He was someone who could give the outward appearance of all the right behavior, but who really was too impaired to be able to accept others fully on an emotionally intimate level.

Otto Kernberg writes, “Gratitude is also one of the means by which love develops and perpetuates itself. The capacity for gratitude…is basic to reciprocity in human relations.” Kernberg was not referring to Christmas presents, but rather the kind of gratitude one feels for the mere existence of those who support, sustain and feed us. Psychoanalytically speaking, the infant experiences gratitude when his/her needs are gratified by the mother.  The infant also experiences frustration and resentment when his/her needs are not met.  In healthy development, we learn to tolerate those conflicted feelings toward those we depend upon.  As adults, we are never more vulnerable than in love relationships, and the lover takes on the same emotional significance that the mother has for the infant.  In order to be in love, we must idealize our partner to a degree in order to overcome the times when our partner inevitably will disappoint us in some way.  Kernberg continues, “The couple’s capacity for idealizing each other is expressed most strongly in their capacity for experiencing gratitude for love received and the corresponding intensification of the desire to give love in return.”  The experience of the expression of love received “as well as of the capacity to reciprocate with love contains the assurance that love and reciprocity will dominate over envy and resentment.”

Now think about the gift giving and receiving as symbolic for the ability to give and receive emotionally. When someone you care about goes to the trouble to ask what would give you pleasure, and one responds by refusing to tell them and/or not accepting what they give, then it is an act of deprivation toward that significant other of something fundamentally necessary for a good relationship.

There is much in the pop psychology world on the subject of emotional dependency and to such an extent that many believe that any feelings of dependency are unhealthy.  That could not be more incorrect.  Healthy mature relationships are characterized by healthy interdependency, which is the ability to accept and be accepted, to be able to rely on someone for our emotional needs and know that they, in turn, can rely on us.  Not only is it okay, even necessary to need others, it is necessary that we are needed right back.

So, keep in mind the significance of true emotional reciprocity and how it functions in your life.  Practice your social skills when you get the fruitcake from Aunt Martha, and consider for yourself whether you make it difficult for those you love to give to you on all levels. No matter the season, we all should be giving when it comes to those less fortunate than us; but when it comes to the ones we love, it is just as important to receive.



Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist in Louisville.  She can be reached at 412-2226 or at

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