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Six Small Ways to Show Your Relationship Partner That You Care

These six little changes can have big effects on your relationship.

You and your partner seem to get along pretty well most of the time, arguing relatively infrequently and only then, over trivial matters. Having settled into a fairly consistent pattern in your day-to-day existence, you rarely question whether things could be better. However, such a smooth-running relationship can actually have its downsides. It's been a long time since you've questioned whether you could be nicer to your partner and, in turn, your partner seems to show little inclination to deviate from the steady path established long ago.

Surprisingly, there may be hidden costs of such stability. Neither of you push each other very far, nor do you look for ways to expand on your feelings toward each other. Indeed, as much as possible, you stay away from controversial areas that you know could spark the discord you so dearly wish to prevent. As much as you hate to admit it, it's possible that one or both of you are either bored or have become boring.

According to the latest relationship research by University of North Carolina’s Brian Don and colleagues (2020), when partners are motivated by avoidance, or the wish to minimize conflict, their relationship can indeed lose its vitality. Couples instead benefit from the approach type of motivation in which they “seek out, desire, and respond to positive stimuli” (p. 2). By trying actively to create new opportunities for positive relationship events, couples should have a much better chance of actually enjoying each other, rather than just gliding in neutral.

The underlying framework of the series of three studies in the Don et al. paper is known as the “upward reactivity hypothesis.” According to this view, people who are high in approach motivation will engage in positive behaviors toward their partners, resulting in a higher number of “sweet” moments that, in turn, can snowball into even greater relationship satisfaction.

This snowball effect should involve, as the authors propose, behaviors by Partner A which result in the perception by Partner B that Partner A really cares. The mutual good feelings build on themselves over the course of these positive interactions.

When you go out of your way to be nice to your partner, then, you’re doing more than just being nice. You’re also communicating to your partner that you have his or her well-being in mind, which is a strong signal that you care. What’s more, both of you will experience positive emotional benefits. As Don and his colleagues note, “both individuals involved in these interactions tend to experience enhanced affective and relational outcomes regardless of which role they enact” (p. 5).

Using data from young adult (average age 27 years old) couples from the community involved in long-term heterosexual relationships, the UNC authors tested the upward reactivity hypothesis in the context of both laboratory and everyday life.

In the first two studies, the research team asked participants to engage in a gratitude interaction task that involved recalling a specific positive thing their partners did for them. In the third, real-life version of the task, participants also received instructions to share a recent positive event that didn’t directly involve the partner, such as when getting good news of a personal nature. An example of sharing such a "capitalization" event would be getting a positive evaluation by a supervisor. The couples also completed 14 daily surveys in which they wrote a brief description of an event that happened earlier in the day, The research team subsequently coded these events according to the degree to which they represented gratitude.

The key findings from all three studies supported the upward reactivity hypothesis by showing that partners higher in approach motivation indeed experienced more positive emotions associated with the positive relational events. These effects were noticed by their partners who, in turn, showed crossover effects of more positive emotional responses as well.

Seeking the sweet moments with your partner, then, can provide the basis for further enhancing not only your own but your partner’s enjoyment of these events. As the authors concluded, “positive social moments are upwardly enhanced for people higher in approach motivation, but also demonstrate that their partners observe this upward reactivity, and may reap rewards themselves” (p. 33).

The evidence from the UNC study supports the importance of looking at your relationship in terms of enhancing the positive rather than simply avoiding the negative. With this orientation, you can now increase the likelihood of your actions having a positive impact on your partner’s satisfaction even while boosting your own emotional rewards.

Based on the Don et al. results, consider these six behaviors noted by the authors that seemed to have particularly beneficial effects. They can be very small indeed:

  1. Take time to listen to the concerns of your partner. Let your partner know that you’re open to hearing about something that’s bothering your partner, even if it’s something that may seem almost too trivial to mention. Maybe you just need to make sure you straighten the magazines on the coffee table instead of leaving them shuffled in a messy little heap.
  2. Share an activity with your partner that you’re not particularly crazy about. Perhaps you’re just not that much into taking long walks, but your partner makes a practice of doing so every evening. Agree to join in, even if it’s just for two or three times. You might even discover that you actually enjoy both the exercise and your partner’s company.
  3. Let your partner know when something good happens to you. In the Don et al. research, capitalization events proved to have some positive effects both on participants and their partners. Although it may seem like bragging, this behavior of sharing your own good news shows your partner that you place value in your partner’s opinions of you.
  4. Spend a few minutes tending to the seemingly little things that could help your partner. Examples noted in the daily life portion of the UNC study were very small indeed, such as filling a water bottle in the morning for a partner who was in a rush to get out the door.
  5. Help your partner achieve his or her goals. Engage in behaviors that will bring your partner closer to, not farther, from his or her own goals. If you know your partner is trying to lose weight, rather than continue to serve high-calorie meals, take the time to buy and prepare healthy foods.
  6. Do things for your partner that only you can do. Although not mentioned in the Don et al. study, following along from the water bottle example, there can be times when your expertise is needed to solve a problem your partner’s experience, whether it’s sewing a button on a coat or fixing a glitch on an email program.

It’s important to remember that part of what contributes to the beneficial effects of these small ways to bring positivity in your relationship is your ability to convey positive sentiments while in the process. Helping out grudgingly or with less than an enthusiastic mindset could negate even the best efforts to show gratitude or be helpful. The key factor in the Don et al. study, after all, was the “approach” motivation on the part of the participants while enacting these “sweet moment” behaviors.

To sum up, finding joy in the smallest of actions, whether those you initiate or those you receive, can play an important role in enhancing your relationship’s quality, allowing each of you to achieve greater fulfillment in your daily lives.

Facebook image: Natalie magic/Shutterstock


Don, B. P., Fredrickson, B. L., & Algoe, S. B. (2020). Enjoying the sweet moments: Does approach motivation upwardly enhance reactivity to positive interpersonal processes? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000312.supp (Supplemental)