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Relationships

When It Comes to Love, Little Things Mean a Lot

Invest in the small routines, not the grand gestures.

Key points

  • In genuine enduring love, continuous positive little actions are central; it is easier to fake one-off romantic gestures
  • Positive responsiveness to a partner is essential for profound love.
  • Happiness and love are mainly built on a steady diet of simple pleasures.

Sometimes, the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” —Winnie the Pooh

“Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I'm not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot.”
—Kitty Allen

We’ve heard it before but it’s true: It’s the little things that matter. In any genuine long-term loving relationship, we (correctly) give a greater romantic weight to the small gestures that show us evidence of love beyond the brief time spent in sex. There are those who specialize in one-off grand romantic gestures: giving diamonds, whisking their lover abroad, or taking them for lavish dinners at fancy restaurants. However, those actions mainly express a momentary mood and not enduring, profound love.

It is much easier to fake one-off actions than it is to imitate continuous behavior, expressed in everyday small romantic gestures. Nevertheless, Sharon Stone said that “Women may be able to fake orgasms, but men can fake whole relationships.” We don’t experience enduring love in one night of great sex, but rather in consistent loving behavior. Love is not one big gesture; it is rather a combination of million little things expressed in pleasant and kind daily actions.

Gasset Ortega (1941) emphasizes the role of facial expressions and gestures in love, arguing that whereas the indifferent man will be charmed by the broad lines of the face and figure of a beautiful woman, the true lover will find beauty in separate, small and unrelated aspects: the color of her eyes, the way her mouth turns, the sound of her voice, and the like.

Reducing the negative weight

“Little things please little minds.” —Ovid

But what about the opposite of small, romantic gestures? How should we view the little, negative actions our partners make? A woman may disqualify a man on a first date for splitting a $10 bill for their coffee. Her profoundly negative evaluation does not stem from the amount of money this man wants to save, but rather from the fact that stinginess reveals a lack of significant positive traits, such as kindness and generosity, and relates to poisonous comparison and accounting. No wonder that both women and men perceive kindness as one of the most important traits in a partner.

Let us take, for example, the apparently negative characteristic of being disorganized or messy. Many women consider disorganization to be a bad thing, and each time they see evidence of it, they give it considerable weight. Is the disorganized person similar to the stingy one? The answer is emphatically no. Order and organization are not essential to loving relationships like kindness and generosity are. Life with a disorganized person requires some mutual compromise: The disorganized person should try to make an effort to be more organized, since their behavior bothers their partner, while the partner should try to take it less seriously. If order is significant for your partner, you should do your best to be more organized.

In the same way, there are people who are irritated by every minor deed of their partner that they consider to be wrong. An irritable person can be a good partner and lover, but their irritability may seriously damage the relationship. This is also an example of how both partners can compromise: The irritable partner should moderate their irritability while trying not inflate every minor “mistake” of the partner, while their partner should reduce the negative impact they give to irritability. As with being disorganized, being irritable is a trait that people can moderate though usually not eliminate.

Positive responsiveness

“I find that when you open the door toward openness and transparency, a lot of people will follow you through.” —Kirsten Gillibrand

Creating a priority order, in which we give different consideration to different actions, is essential to love. Most vitally, we must respond positively toward our partner’s actions. Similar to the principle that every person is innocent unless proven otherwise, in love we must fervently believe in the good of our partner unless proven otherwise. Positive responsiveness contributes to attraction, enjoying each other’s’ company, trust, commitment, personal growth, and intimacy (Reis & Clark, 2013). Positive responsiveness is also important in increasing sexual desire (more strongly so in women), and perceived partner responsiveness is intrinsic to the development of intimacy in sexual contexts (Birnbaum et al., 2016). The healthiest attitude toward one’s romantic relationship is perceiving one’s partner in a consistently positive light, while clearly distinguishing between the seriousness with which we view their profound and superficial traits.

Happiness, love, and the little things

“A steady diet of simple pleasures will keep you above your set point. Find the small things that you know give you a little high—a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends—and sprinkle your life with them. In the long run, that will leave you happier than some grand achievement that gives you a big lift for a while.” —David Lykken

It must be stated that the importance of continuous small deeds in romantic relationships does not eliminate the importance of one-off big and small romantic gestures, such as going abroad together, the wedding of a firstborn child, or a shared meal in a romantic setting. The saying, “See Naples and die” indicates the importance of these one-off, small actions. One small moment looking at the beauty of Naples shows us what is really important in life. Similarly, brief moments of looking into the glowing face of your beloved during a romantic conversation indicates how important he or she is to you. Profound love, like a happy life, combines the enduring continuum of the little things with the bigger, more meaningful things. The latter spices up romantic relationships and life, but it is not the main course (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).

Anton Chekhov said, “Any idiot can face a crisis: it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” In the same vein, anyone can produce big romantic gestures but it is in the everyday that their sensitivity, or lack of it, is revealed most. It is in these circumstances where love thrives most wonderfully.

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

Birnbaum, G. E., Reis, H. T., Mizrahi, M., Kanat-Maymon, Y., Sass, O., & Granovski-Milner, C. (2016). Intimately connected: The importance of partner responsiveness for experiencing sexual desire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 530-546.

Ortega y Gasset, J. (1941). On love. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Reis, H. T., & Clark, M. S. (2013). Responsiveness. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships. New York: Oxford University Press, 400-423.

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