The Little Things

You know those little things?

You know what those are...the subtle hints that someone cares for you, whispering so softly that you have to strain to hear them.  My dad certainly does.  He has mastered the art of the little things discipline.  Let me explain.  My mom drove a minivan for the simple reason that it could functionally contain four crazy boys who had no problem treating her vehicle as our own personal bat cave, or whatever phase we were in at the time.  

Each of our family ventures were trekked in whatever model of minivan was parked in our driveway that year. It did not matter if we voyaged to the oily beaches of Galveston or the piney woods of East Texas, the van was in pristine condition before we left the house.  If our departure was at 10:00, my dad would be awake before the sunrise spit shining the caravan that would soon be covered in sand, shampooing the carpet that would soon be draped in cheetos and discarded McDonalds cups, and filling up a gas tank that would soon be drained on our journey. 

My dad knows that my mom loves a clean car.

And to my dad, the brevity of the car's cleanliness paled in comparison to the power of the gesture.  Sure enough, as soon as we pulled out the driveway, one of us would spill our Dr. Pepper all over the newly shampooed carpet.  My dad would peer into the rear view mirror and quietly ask one of us to clean it up.  He didn't care.  It was not about the car's cleanliness, it was about my mom's happiness. It did not matter that my mom gave up the dream of a consistently clean car long ago, over time, my dad's clean cars became a legend of superfluous and unnecessary gestures of love. Exactly what a strong marriage needs.  

It's a little thing, but it's the most important.

Little things are gems in an intimate relationship, and they take on different shapes for every couple.  You may not be able to describe a little thing if placed on the spot, but you know one when you see it.  They are those tiny moments, simple gestures, and quiet words that slowly and unexpectedly weave the fabric of a marriage.  Couples visit me for more reasons than I can count.  But one of the most common complaints that folks in distressed relationships make is the loss of the little things.  

What do little things like notes on your car or an unexpectedly clean kitchen mean to you? The simple answer is that they are proof that someone cares for you.  Evidence that the person you are waking up with each day still thinks of you when they go to work.  Marriage researcher John Gottman knows this.  Gottman discovered that healthy marriages are those in which a five to one ratio exists between positive and negative interactions.  This means that for every time you criticize or insult your partner, it requires at least five demonstrations your love and commitment to them to restore your relationship.  A healthy roadmap for a little things discipline.

A little things discipline sounds boring?

It isn't. I promise. In fact, it is probably the most fun you'll have developing and maintaining a discipline in your life for the simple reason that you are building on your natural desire to strengthen your relationship. And how is this done? Simple. If you are fortunate enough to be in a healthy relationship, then think of those small things that keep your partner smiling throughout the day.  Maybe it is a cleaned car.  How about fresh flowers on the table?  Perhaps you stayed up with the baby even though it is not your night.  Recall the unexpected gesture that makes your partner's heart lighter and make it a point to perform that gesture every day.

Seem like a lot?

Remember, that this is a little things discipline.  Your gestures need not be extravagant.  In fact, the subtler the better in my opinion.  There's something about being uncertain whether your spouse or partner has just offered you a small expression of their affection, only to be delightfully surprised.  The little things are the brushstrokes of a great relationship.  Over time, they create a portrait of a passionately engaged romance.  If you and your partner are struggling, try to remember those little moments that occurred early on in your relationship. They are there; I promise: How did she used to talk to you?  How did hold your hand?

If you're struggling, then depending on the depth of your relational conflict, it is possible that you need some professional support. But the power of the little things to repair a relationship should not be underestimated. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington