A famous saying asserts that the devil is in the details—in the small things we often deem unimportant. But life revolves around the little things. They take up most of our time, betray our vices and virtues, reveal our limits and courage, and divulge our preferences and dislikes. It is in the trivial moments that we are the most authentic: when we eagerly wait for the light to turn green, browse social media networks, or murmur good night.
In love, things are no different. It is not the strategies and recipes for success that hold us together, nor the grand gestures worthy of a movie script. It’s the details, the partner’s daily behaviour, that assures us that we are still special and loved.
Many things are written on how to keep love alive. Studies are done in its name. There is counselling and guidance involved. This is because its mechanisms do not run automatically, by themselves. We are complex beings and sometimes we do not even understand ourselves. A couple’s identity is all the more problematic.
Before reaching a place where we need a relationship revolution, it’s good to take care of the little nothings. Love is born out of small things, and they are what helps it grow. It’s in the gestures, looks and words; in the smile we show when we share what is hurting us.
Long-lasting relationships are experienced by people who are mindful of the details, who do not take things for granted, as though they are a permanent given. To neglect the details means to make room for mindless habits, for inertia-induced interactions. No couple in love will ever declare that love comes out of inertia (except, maybe, for those who believe in Cupid).
The list of small things that bring joy and stability to a couple varies from one case to another. There are, however, some general guidelines: a set of too-often overlooked habits that can embellish life as a couple.
Please, thank you, and forgive me
Although it does not sound poetical nor spectacular, courtesy carries great weight with a couple. At the beginning, each partner outdoes themselves trying to make a good impression, to win the confidence of the other. As time goes by, courtesy tends to lose its value and, unfortunately, its frequency. We use it regularly with others around us but tend to be oblivious when it comes to our loved ones—as if familiarity would spare us the “effort”.
“Trust (of our loved ones) does not give us a free pass to take everything for granted”, says Pope Francis, according to orlandodiocese.org. “The more intimate and profound, the more love requires us to respect the other’s freedom and for him to open his heart (…). Politeness and the capacity to say “thank you” are seen as signs of weakness. This tendency should be opposed inside a family (…). Many hurt feelings, many family breakups start with losing the precious words, “I am sorry”. Never close a day without being at peace with each other. And for this, a small gesture is enough.”
The paradox of a compliment is that it costs nothing, but it’s worth every penny. Under the mark of authenticity, and not flattery in exchange for getting a personal advantage, compliments generate smiles.
Studies show that women need more verbal appreciation than men and that sweet, flattering talk increases the degree of marital satisfaction, while its absence favours emotional distancing and the emergence of doubts regarding the other person’s feelings.
Independent of confidence in one’s own qualities, the desire to be praised for certain behaviours or accomplishments appears in all stages of a relationship and is not exclusively characteristic to women. Its fulfillment translates as extra points for both partners’ satisfaction.
Regrettably, the passing of time weakens a husband’s habit of complimenting his wife and vice versa, although the need for appreciation remains unchanged.
In addition, physical closeness, delicate touches, and small tokens of affection are lost over time. Some think holding hands in public is only appropriate for youngsters, for instance. Others believe that ageing justifies a certain coldness between spouses or that the inevitable decline of passion also justifies a decline in tenderness, with both being regarded with reluctance after a while.
The physical expression of attachment should define a marriage even after passionate love turns into companionate love—not just for old times’ sake, but to perpetuate them.
According to a study carried out in 2003, couples who demonstrate tenderness manage to overcome conflicts more easily and reach a compromise when dealing with differences of opinion. Small gestures, like holding hands, spontaneous hugs, and caresses without any special reason, maintain emotional closeness and increase the chances of long-term happiness.
From the outside, using nicknames by a couple may seem ridiculous, forced even. That is why nicknames must remain in their unique, private space, there where they ought to exist abundantly, without being ignored or ridiculed.
Psychologists confirm that a way of addressing based on playful names or funny nicknames, invested with a certain special personal significance, are an expression of solidarity among partners. Next to various key words, personalised jokes or nonverbal expressions and behaviours relevant just for the partner, nicknames maintain a high level of interest and attractiveness towards the other.
Often trifled, or, on the contrary, overestimated, romance can be characterised as following certain standard, predictable choices (flowers, candy, love notes), without suggesting that it could mean more than a series of meaningless clichés.
Your partner’s imagination, personal preferences and expectations are the best signals to pay attention to when you want to make a romantic gesture.
If we wrap it in the jovial packaging of surprise, the effect is increased. Surprises increase intimacy between partners, and they enhance cheerfulness and humour. They help us escape the mundane, and get a breath of fresh air. A novel gift, a dinner at a restaurant, an endearing declaration, or something 100% original have the gift of bringing colour to life as a couple.
In the category of romantic surprises we may also include random acts of kindness towards the other, outside of the pressure of special days or habits that most people have. Generosity and altruism are intertwined with growth in marital satisfaction.
A lack of kindness creates a huge gap between two people who were once united by love. Psychologists denounce its destructive effects, likening the excesses of malice with the sound of a bell which foretells of the end of the relationship.
On the other hand, kindness is what binds everything together, making the partner feel valued, understood and loved.
Avoiding reproaches, understanding emotional needs and demonstrating self-control as an imperative in any marriage conflict are part of the strategies recommended to those who are may find themselves prevented from being kind by stress, fatigue, irritability or other temperamental predispositions.
Among the habits that drive a kind attitude, specialists underline:
Appreciating the intention (respond positively even if the partner did not succeed in completing a desirable action; reproaches will discourage similar potential attempts).
Giving up criticism (abandon value judgements and the habit of verbally highlighting the spouse’s clumsiness).
Sharing joy (emphasising joy with the other).
Concerning sharing joy, a series of experiments have identified four typical reactions to someone sharing something that gives him or her joy (good news): passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.
Let’s say the husband tells his wife that he managed to get the promotion he wanted. The passive destructive answer would convey disinterest, minimising the importance of the respective event (I too have good news: I got a free T-shirt!).
The passive constructive answer will convey enthusiasm, but a muted, formal one. Hearing the news, the wife might say, “Cool!” and then go back to whatever she was doing on her laptop or her phone.
The active destructive answer will exaggerate the risks of the matter at hand, inducing fear and lack of confidence: What if you don’t like it? What if it’s going to be too hard? What if you won’t be able to cope?
Lastly, the active constructive answer will show we are paying attention, we care and share the other person’s feelings: Great! When did you find out? What will be different in the future?
This is the kind of communication to which we must seek to evolve—interactions filled with kindness.
We cannot formulate a generally valid recipe regarding love’s triumph, but we can observe that simple things, daily habits, are good measures of the rhythms of a couple’s happiness. At the end of the day, it is the details that make the difference between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, between “we’re good” and “we still need to work on that”: the capacity to listen, the willingness to offer help, the pleasure of laughing together, the desire to forgive. It is the art of living not according to what I or you like, but to what we like.
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.