Large gifts, amazing trips, or a single, profound, act of giving from a partner—like agreeing to let your sister live with you for three months while she gets her life together—are touching moments in a relationship. However, according to research, it’s the smaller moments, like a steady sprinkle of kindness and care, that create a trusting and healthy relationship. Although small moments may seem insignificant alone, together they are the heart and soul of making relationships work in the long term.
Yesterday, my husband said something that hurt my feelings. I told him I thought he was insensitive, and he pointed out why I shouldn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel heard. The issue didn’t get fixed or resolved, and I spent a few minutes building it up in my mind and sulking. Later in the afternoon, I found a vase of peonies, my favorite flower, from our garden arranged on my desk. My heart softened. That evening, as he was filing stacks of paperwork, which I know overwhelms him, I offered to help. Together, we completed a task in an hour that would have taken him three hours.
With my husband and me, was the original infraction solved, fixed, or repaired? No, it wasn’t. But rather than becoming the main event of the day, it occurred alongside our caring actions, keeping the infraction at a two on the Richter scale of trouble rather than a six.
Psychologist Eli Finkel has studied thousands of couples in his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. In the book, he introduces the idea of “love hacks,” or shortcuts that create goodwill and, over time, add up to trust and strength. These love hacks, when practiced regularly, create a “love bank account.” The love bank account should be kept in the black so that when you need to draw a lot out at once, such as a deep misunderstanding, a nasty fight, or a time of distance and moving apart, it doesn’t go into the red. The account also helps relationships stay positive when there isn’t time for a total overhaul.
In Dr. Finkel’s relationships laboratory at Northwestern, he has developed many quick fixes. Here are two fixes I’m especially fond of:
- Send a short-but-sweet morning text wishing your partner a good day. If you know something in particular is happening that day, wish them luck or state that you can’t wait to hear about it that night. Even an emoji with a simple message of appreciation can create warm feelings.
- Touch. Hold hands, give a quick kiss on the cheek, or rub your partner’s feet while watching the news. One experiment showed that, for people who appreciated touch, they felt more supported and confident in their partner’s love when they were touched, even when their partners didn’t want to do it. Even if their rational selves didn’t experience the love behind it, they could feel the goodwill in the gesture, making a huge difference.
Do you accept your partner’s bids?
Dr. John Gottman, who has studied couples for over 30 years, also has an important relationship hack: bidding. Here’s how that works: Say you’re on a walk, deep in thought about a project. Your partner says, “Look at that adorable puppy!” You could ignore him and say, “Right now, I’m thinking about my report that’s due.”
Or you could take a moment and say, “Wow, what a cutie.” Dr. Gottman found that couples who accepted the bid for connection were 88 percent more likely to stay married than partners who ignored their partner’s bid. “Do you like my new haircut?” “Look at the sunset.” “Guess what my sister said on the phone today?” These are all requests for attention and connection. Individually, they seem unimportant, and we may be tempted to ignore the request, paying attention to our more important thoughts. However, research shows that the basis of friendship is responding to their news with some degree of interest and care.
I have found that these acts are similar to any other practice, such as working out, playing a musical instrument, or training for a tennis tournament. We should do them whether we feel like it or not.
Here are my three favorite acts of kindness:
- Simple acts of service: My husband has made me a latte almost every morning for 35 years. Regardless of what has gone on with us the night before or how we are feeling, the latte comes and, with it, my appreciation.
- Have a regular date night: This is especially important for married couples with children. A study from Henry Benson of the Marriage Foundation and Professor Steve McKay from the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom found that married or cohabitating couples who had regular date nights, even as little as once a month, were 14 percent less likely to split up over the next 10 years than couples who rarely went out. Dates don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. A walk after tea or an hour at a taco bar will work just fine.
- Use your words: “Tell me more about that” are magic words that convey interest and care. Say your partner loves motorcycles, which you couldn’t care less about, and he says, “A cruiser is so much more fun than a sports bike.” Rather than look at him or her blankly, ask him to explain why that is so.
These acts of kindness are important in nourishing your relationship in little ways, even (or especially) when you don’t feel like it. Feelings of love and passion come and go, but these actions are the foundation of a friendship that can carry you through the hard times.
Practicing kindness does not mean accepting mistreatment. It is not pushing big issues aside and acting as if everything is great when it’s not. If the issues are too painful for love hacks to help, then it’s time to bring in a trusted person—a therapist or someone you trust—to help you manage what’s happening.
Marriage research shows that most couples have about 10 unsolvable, common issues, such as affection, sex, money, and managing free time. The difference between couples who thrive and those who dive are not the issues—the difference is in how they manage the issues. Love hacks help us remember that issues do not make up the entire relationship, and they can go a long way toward adding sprinkles of what’s right along with what isn’t.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.