Familiar acts are beautiful through love. – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Time can erode the feelings of care and concern in even the best of relationships. People stop doing the nice little things they used to do for each other because they're too tired, too stressed out, or start waiting for the other person to do something nice first. Eventually, both people feel taken for granted and horribly lonely.
Small acts of kindness—called caring behaviors—can be any verbal or nonverbal expression of interest, concern, or affection that is offered frequently and on a regular basis. Things like taking your partner warm towels after bath, or surprising your partner by arranging for a babysitter, are excellent examples of caring behaviors. These seemingly small caring behaviors are the lifeblood of a relationship; they offer both partners frequent signs that they are valued and that the relationship is important.
Caring Behaviors at the Start of a Relationship
At the beginning of a relationship, there's much that happens automatically. It's usually called romance, or the honeymoon phase of a relationship.
Take a minute to recall all the wonderfully simple but significant gestures you used to offer your partner. Remember how much fun it was thinking about your partner in anticipating his or her needs: selecting and making the perfect card; making those muffins she always raved about; giving one of your to-die for foot rubs.
What leads to the decline of these caring gestures and the good feelings that go with them? The answer is surprisingly simple—it's the result of basic neglect. Over time, people fail to give proper attention to their partner and the relationship they share. This usually isn't caused by malice. Rather, couples stop making kind gestures to each other because of mistaken assumptions about the nature of lasting love.
Beliefs that sabotage caring behaviors:
1. These “small” behaviors are somehow frivolous or nonessential in a long-term relationship. All individuals need to know their valued by their partner—not just in the beginning stages, but through out the lifetime of a relationship. What could be more important than making your partner feel cherished, important, and central in your life?
2. Because these activities initially come so easily, they should continue to be easy. I hear this over and over again in couple sessions. “If I have to work so hard it love, something must be wrong with the relationship” or “Isn't love supposed to be spontaneous?”
Many people think that planning will take the spark out of things, but it doesn't have to. Sometimes planning can actually intensify the spark. The build up the planning engenders is a plus. The sheer anticipation of being with your partner, and doing something special for him or her, intensifies the whole experience.
The idealization of spontaneity can be dangerous. When you first start to notice that sensations you had early on in your relationship have dwindled, you're likely to panic. Something must be wrong! Maybe the relationship wasn’t right to begin with—maybe you weren't really love it all—or maybe your partner has changed. You don't stop to think that maybe the feelings are dwindling precisely because you're not doing all the little things used to do to nurture your partner and the relationship.
3. You shouldn't have to work at love. Many people think that love should not require any effort—it should just magically happen. In truth, love requires regular refinement of basic relationship skills—skills such as listening with understanding, expressing feelings with kindness, and resolving conflict without lapsing into criticism. Couples use these relationship enhancement skills generously in the early stages of their relationship. Over time, however, people stop using their skills and rely more and more—with increasing resentment—on the hope of getting what they want. They stop doing what they gladly did at the beginning.
Caring Behaviors Activity and List:
An activity I often assign to couples as “homework” is to make a list of “caring behaviors” and commit to doing at least one of them per day. The list below is from a book my husband and I wrote many years ago called Illuminating the Heart: Steps toward a More Spiritual Marriage. Some of them make me laugh, reading them now—they sound a little cheesy.Others my husband and I do for each other on a regular basis. A few I'm sure my editor added in. Hopefully the list will spark ideas of your own.
- Walking: take a walk with your partner and hold hands; or, give your partner some time off from the family to take a walk alone
- Play some music and dance with your partner
- Do yoga or stretching together
- Read a favorite story aloud to your partner at bedtime.
- Surprise your partner with a book or magazine and protected time to read it
- Read a poem to your partner
- Sing a love song to your partner (even if you don't have a great voice)
- Surprise your partner with tickets for special concert or performance (arrange a babysitter if you have kids)
- Have different background music on than you usually do, something that will have special resonance for your partner
- Help your partner arrange to spend some quiet time alone
- Arrange an outing that will allow you to meditate or spend some quiet time alone with your partner
- Let your partner sleep in 30 extra minutes while you make breakfast and get the kids up
- Encourage your partner to take a nap, or take a nap together
- Tuck your partner into bed—smooth the pillow, stroke your partner’s hair, give a good night kiss
- Support your partner in his or her pursuit of a favorite hobby
- Surprise your partner with a gift certificate for extra time to work on his or her hobby
- Arrange an outing connected with your partner’s favorite hobby
- Surprise your partner and rented favorite movie (make sure there will be quiet time for watching)
- Watch an old sitcom from your childhood
- Arrange a night out at the movies, selecting a movie that your spouse has particularly wanted to see
- Prepare a bubble bath for your partner
- Warm-up the bathroom with a space heater before your partner wakes up to take his or her shower
- Put lotion on your partner’s back after his or her bath or shower
- Warm-up towels for your partner for after his or her bath or shower
- Make your partner’s favorite meal
- Pack some favorite snacks for your partner to take to work when you know he or she is going to have a long day
- Make heart-shaped food, such as pancakes or cookies
- Go on a picnic together
- Go to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and share an ice cream soda
- Take a walk or hike through the woods
- Watch the stars together
- Go bird-watching
- Plant something together in the garden
- Go to church or temple together
- Pray or meditate together
- Read favorite scripture or other inspirational passages to each other
- Clean up some part of the house or finish some long ignored housekeeping task that has hung over your partner’s head
- Fix up a special corner of the house for your partner (for example, if your partner loves to draw, create a special art area)
- Have flowers delivered
- Surprise your partner with a night out or getaway
- Take the children out so your partner can enjoy being home alone
- If your partner is usually the one who does the planning, come up with your own detailed plans for a vacation or weekend getaway
- Go to the park together, swing on the swings
- Fly a kite, act like a kid
- Play Monopoly or a card game
- Blow bubbles
- Draw with sidewalk chalk
- Surprise your partner with a hug or a kiss, maybe in a different spot than usual—a kiss on the back of the neck, or on the forehead…
- Give your partner a hand massag or a foot massage
- Rub your partner’s shoulders
- Go to your local nursery during growing season and asked for a tour of all the fragrant blossoming plants, spell the flowers together, and choose something to take home and plant in your garden
- Light a scented candle
- By your partner one single, fragrant flower
- Sit outside and smell the fresh air
- Take the dog for a walk together
- Go to the zoo or local aquarium
- Drive out to a horse farm together—pretend you're in the market for an Arabian Show-horse; or go horseback riding
When you do something nice for your partner, try to be low-key about it. Don't make a fanfare about what you’re doing. Most importantly, try to notice and show appreciation for what your partner is doing for you. That's part of the fun. You can wonder to yourself, “Now, did he bring me that cup of coffee because he was doing the exercise?” In this way, you'll train yourself to pay attention to all the positive things your partner does, rather than dwelling only on the negative.
I can tell you from personal experience of being married almost 25 years, as well as from working from many couples, that making an intentional effort to bring these small, caring behaviors into your relationship can make a huge difference.
You might also like these posts: A Simple Way to Put The Spark Back in Your Relationship and 80+ Self-Care Ideas.
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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project and Shyness Is Nice.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, andNurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. My husband, Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.