Not too long ago my husband and I attended a marriage conference. Well, to be more precise, some bribing and coercion may have been involved in getting the hubbers there. He was concerned that the sessions would involve us sharing feelings and divulging deep thoughts. (I have no idea why that would scare a man away. No clue.)
I don’t remember much from our two days at the conference. Except for one “exercise”: the 20-second hug. Couples were asked to hold each other in silence for twenty seconds. Twenty seconds. Like that’s going to make a difference in a decade-long marriage. Turns out, I should really shush my inner critic. After 11 years of marriage, I discovered that all it took was a longish hug to turn me into butter. I just about melted in my man’s arms. Sure, we give each other hugs all the time. But this was quiet and intentional and made everything all better. It was a sweet moment in our marriage – and it’s going to stay with me a long time.
When we talk about marriage, we usually dwell on the big stuff. But little things make a huge difference. Don’t take my word for it. I have it on good authority from none other than Winnie the Pooh (via A.A. Milne). “Sometimes,” says Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
Small things like kindness. Kindness is a hugely underrated quality in marriage. Remember when you made a mental checklist of qualities to look for in a potential husband? I bet “sense of humor” beat “kindness” by a mile. Fast forward to your reality today: When your four-year-old is throwing up like she was out at a frat party all night, I doubt you need a joke. During a 2 a.m. crisis, you need a helpful, albeit sleepy, spouse who is willing to change the sheets.
Studies have shown that kindness breathes life into relationships, even possibly restoring brokenness. What are some ways you can show kindness to your spouse while expecting nothing in return?
- Two simple words. Thank you. We teach our kids to say it. We’re sure to say it to the stranger who holds the door open or the guy bagging our groceries. But, how often do we take a minute to acknowledge the husband who took the garbage out or unloaded the dishwasher or read the kids bedtime stories after a long day at work? It might seem formal – even unnecessary. You think, “Of course he knows I appreciate him.” But, does he really? It only takes couple of seconds and two words to communicate: I see you and I appreciate you.
- Ask how you can help. There’s no denying that you’re wiped out. The day has been a blur of diapers and spit-up, teething and tantrums, Goldfish and Cheerios. But, here’s one way of surprising your spouse: ask him if there’s anyway you can help him. Here are seven words to incorporate into your routine, “How can I make your day better?” Letting him know that the two of you are in this together takes some of the pressure off your relationship.
- Listen (like you mean it). This one’s hard for me. I ask my man how his day went. And sometime through his description of it, my mind wanders to the fact that I need to add brown sugar to my grocery list. Or, if I’ve RSVP’d to that party invite. Here’s what you and I could do instead: Put away the phone. Make eye contact. Ask questions. Acknowledge that he’s had a hard day too. Celebrate his victories.
- Plan a date night. When our kids were teeny weeny, we had lots of low-key, low-budget date nights. The husband would take the kids upstairs to put them to bed. I would cook steak on the stove top (Who am I kidding? Sometimes, it was a microwaveable TV dinner), pour us some wine and light a couple candles. I even pulled out a tablecloth and real china on occasion (like he really cared! That was solely for me). Sometimes, that’s all it takes to show you’re investing in him, in both of you as a couple. Date nights in PJs which end with a movie on the couch equals to no pressure, even if one of you (read: you) knocks off after a few sips of vino.
- Compliment him. It’s his company annual do. The kids are with a babysitter and you’ve taken the effort to shave, pull down the ponytail, slap on some make up and get out of your sweats. You actually feel like a person again (as opposed to mama, or a grizzly in hibernation). But, instead of expecting a “wowza,” how about you extend a compliment? Let him know that he cleans up real good. That he’s still the man. That he’s going to be your arm candy for the evening.
Little acts of kindness could add up to the best gift you can give your children: A strong marriage. Maybe that’s simplistic. But, maybe it’s worth a shot. Like the Greek philosopher Aesop writes in the children’s fable The Lion and the Mouse: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”