Explained: Why Men and Women React Differently to Kindness

10/01/2011 02:28 am ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

For reasons that until very recently I'd never really understood, my husband is rarely made happy by my spontaneous gifts or generous gestures. When I bring home a favorite dessert from the supermarket to surprise him, or when I offer to get up early with the kids Saturday and Sunday so that he can sleep in after a hard work week, the response is usually lukewarm. He says "thank you" (something he's learned the hard way to do to keep from hurting my feelings), but I can tell that he's a little uncomfortable, too.

This has been hard for me to wrap my head around, because I love it when he does those sorts of things for me. It's not the pampering so much as the thought behind it that brings me joy. Knowing that he's thinking about how he can bring a little happiness to my day, or ease my burden just a little, makes me feel terrific -- and makes me love him just a little more. Why in the world doesn't he feel the same way?

The answer may lie in how our reactions to acts of kindness differ. When someone goes out of his or her way to help you, you typically feel either gratitude or indebtedness (and sometimes a bit of both).

Gratitude is a great feeling. It's a pleasant, warm state -- a sensation of being cared for and valued. In a nutshell, experiencing gratitude makes you happy. Research shows that we tend to feel grateful to our benefactors as a function of things, like how costly the gift or gesture was to give and how thoughtful it was (the extent to which is was tailored to our particular needs). When we feel grateful to someone, we feel as if they have grown closer to us, we view them more positively and as a result we genuinely want to be nice to them in return.

Indebtedness, on the other hand, is more of a focus on repayment. It's a sense of obligation -- she gave me this, so I need to give her something in return to even things out. Indebtedness has been shown in some studies to actually reduce gratitude and to even be associated with negative feelings toward the benefactor, like guilt and resentment. Feeling indebted does not make you happy.

In a May 2010 study, couples who responded to their partner's simple, everyday acts of caring with gratitude reported feeling more connected to their partner and more satisfied with their relationship. But that's not where the benefits of gratitude end -- on days where one person felt gratitude toward their partner, the partner reported feeling significantly more connected and satisfied too! Reacting to kindness with gratitude brings happiness to everyone involved.

Indebtedness, on the other hand, did nothing to improve anyone's happiness or bring people closer together. Feeling a sense of obligation interferes with your ability to focus on feeling cared for and cherished, and givers get no joy out of watching their kind and loving gestures fall flat.

Interestingly, the study also found that women tended to experience more gratitude in response to gestures from their romantic partners. For men, gratitude and indebtedness are more likely to co-occur -- their happiness in response to an act of kindness is often tinged with a sense of debt, and in some instances is overwhelmed by it.

So what can you do if you suspect that your partner feels more indebted than grateful when you do something nice? (Or, if you yourself are the one struggling with feelings of obligation?) Really, the best approach is honest conversation.

In my new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals," I focus a lot on how the first obstacle to reaching any goal -- whether it has to do with a relationship, weight loss or getting ahead at work -- is usually overcoming the wrong-headed beliefs that are sabotaging your success. Does your partner feel indebted in response to kindness because they believe that is what is expected of them? Are you inadvertently making your partner feel indebted in the way you talk about your kind gestures? Do you make them feel guilty when they don't respond in kind? (In my case, it turns out I was doing some of these things without realizing it.)

By talking together about your feelings and expectations you can clear the air,and get to a place in your relationship where thoughtful, loving support can be seen for what it is, and where it can give you both the happiness you deserve.

For more on getting what you want in your relationships, at work and everywhere else, check out my new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals." Or, visit my website The Science of Success. Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.