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                                   Notice the Small Stuff

I can get pretty annoyed when I hear people taking the popular axiom, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and dispensing it as relationship advice to their friends, their partners, or themselves. In the world of love and relationships, there is no such thing as “too small to be important.” Every single issue can have an impact, every single gesture carries some weight. Relationships provide a constant stream of “small stuff” where every piece can make a difference. These small pieces, when they are negative, can collect very quickly into large problems—sometimes even deal-breaking problems. Conversely, an ongoing supply of small positive moments help us feel loved, as well as loving.

Think about the following scenarios:

* Last night Liz, who was watching television, went to bed much later than Gary, who wasn’t feeling well. When Liz reached the bedroom, she absentmindedly put on the overhead light, plunked her book down on the bedside table, adjusted all the windows, ran water in the master bathroom instead of using the one down the hall, messed up when setting the alarm clock—accidentally releasing fifteen seconds of the sound of K-Rock Round the Clock, and generally made so much noise that Gary woke up and had a hard time falling back asleep. “Why does she have to be so selfish?” Gary thinks.

* Brandon, who is an early riser, lives with Gwen, who needs eight solid hours of sleep to feel fully rested. Before he goes to bed at night, Brandon leaves clothing for the morning hanging in the bathroom so he doesn’t have to disturb his partner again and again by opening doors and drawers. When Gwen woke up this morning, one of the first things she noticed was the empty hanger hanging on the bathroom door. Remembering Brandon’s obvious efforts not to wake her made Gwen smile and think, “He’s so incredibly thoughtful.”

A good relationship is about good moments. Too many men and women have a “grand gesture” approach to love. They worry, sometimes obsessively, about the larger relationship moments: Valentine’s Day, Christmas, birthdays, special dinners, really big fights. That’s when they pay attention to what’s taking place; that’s when they declare their love. All of the in-between time, however, is not considered vital or important. Often, it’s not considered at all.

Here is another relationship fact: Most of the real work in relationships is taking place in quieter moments in smaller spaces. Defrosting a can of orange juice for your partner because you noticed the pitcher in the refrigerator was almost empty. Keeping the phone line open when you know your partner is expecting a call. Helping your partner make the bed. Taking turns putting out food for the cat. Picking up your partner’s laundry. These are classic examples of the absolutely smallest kind of stuff that can have a disproportionately large effect on the day-to-day experience of love in a partnership. Why? Because every one of these smallest moments tells your partner, “I care about you.”

                                               Small Events Send Big Messages

The “small stuff” of relationships—the small events and moments that make up each day—are the essence of a loving partnership. “Big stuff” such as love and attraction and integrity and commitment provide the framework—the necessary framework. But it is in the “small stuff” where our connections are given life and meaning.

Emmett and Janice are walking down the street. She stops to look in a store window. He stops also to put his arm around her and notice what she’s noticing. Without uttering a single word, Emmett is clearly saying, “What’s important to you is important to me: I want to share what you’re thinking; I want to be in your world.” This thirty seconds becomes a relationship event that is rich with meaningful messages.

Compare Emmett and Janice to Marc and Marnie, who are sitting poolside on their vacation in Mexico. Marnie is on her computer; Marc is on his cell phone. Marnie says, “I’m hungry. When are we going to eat?” Marc groans. This thirty seconds, including the groan, is another relationship event. And while there may be many messages embedded in this event, too, the one that seems most clear is: “we are not very connected to each other right now.”

There is a message in these two scenarios for you also: Nothing is unimportant.

No one has needed to rent an airplane and write their messages in huge letters in the sky here, yet a multitude of important relationship messages are burning up the wires in these two “small” events. That’s the thing about small events—they are always carrying a thousand times their weight in relationship messages.

                      Being in a Relationship Means Living with Round-the-Clock “Relationship Surveillance”

You don’t have to look for relationship messages with a microscope, and you don’t have to crack them like some secret code. Whether you realize it or not, recognize it or not, believe it or not, your mind, your guts, and your heart are carefully and automatically monitoring and interpreting these messages like a supercomputer. And the impact of these messages is constantly reshaping your experience of partnership.

I call this process “relationship surveillance.” This surveillance is not always fully conscious—there are times that it is completely unconscious—but it is always taking place. Your supercomputer never takes a day off. It never takes an hour off. It doesn’t even take an occasional five-minute break. Even when you are fast asleep, your supercomputer is still collecting relationship messages: Is my partner touching me or not touching me? Is my partner relaxed or tense? Does my partner seem to be mad at me tonight? Is my partner grabbing the sheets and blankets selfishly? Is my partner making an excessive amount of noise? And so on. It is a round-the-clock, microscopic surveillance that is part of your complex human design. And that is why nothing is unimportant. You have to take the small stuff seriously.

                                               Moving Closer or Moving Apart

The moments you have just witnessed between Emmett and Janice and Marc and Marnie are two small events. And neither one, in and of itself, is likely to make or break a relationship. Yet they still have relationship “weight”—an emotional weight that every partner feels. Look again at Marc and Marnie’s event. Maybe Marc is tired from all the phone calls he’s had to make, and will interact very differently once he’s had an hour or two of rest. Maybe Marnie has a lot of stress right now from her job and her anxiety is making her unusually restless. We don’t know. What we do know is that this particular relationship event, though it lasted no more than thirty seconds, gave Marc and Marnie an experience of separateness. Contrast this with the experience of Emmett and Janice. In their thirty-second event, they both had an experience of connection.

As these two simple scenarios illustrate, EVERY small relationship event has two possible outcomes:

1) It can reinforce a feeling of separateness, or . . .

2) It can reinforce a feeling of connection.

This is what I mean when I say that the event has emotional weight. A little bit closer, or a little more distant. A little bit more loving, or a little bit less loving. A little bit happier, a little bit less happy. A little bit more angry, a little bit less angry. A little bit more satisfied, a little bit less satisfied. A little bit more partnered, or a little bit less partnered. These small events keep our relationships in constant motion. And while that motion may be quite subtle, it is real, and it has consequences for the partnership.

                                               The Big Stuff is Only a Beginning

In the beginning of a new relationship, everything is pretty BIG. We think big, feel big, act big. LOVE, ROMANCE, SEX, COMMITMENT, THE FUTURE—these are where our energies are going, and this is completely appropriate. Beginnings are all about putting these important and necessary big pieces together. That’s why we call them beginnings.

But what happens next? For some couples, there is no “next,” not even if they are together for many months, or even years. Rafael and Tiffany—a couple I met last year at a relationship seminar of mine in Los Angeles—are one such couple. Rafael and Tiffany have been dating for three years, but they still have a “grand gesture” approach to their relationship. Their sense of connection comes from big things like sex, travel, expensive presents, and wildly romantic dinners. This is how they communicate, and this is how they resolve arguments. This is how they define their relationship, and this is how they try to maintain their relationship. I call this “living LARGE.”

In just the past six months, Rafael and Tiffany have been to Aspen twice, to Tuscany, and to two regional film festivals. This probably sounds very exciting, romantic, and intense, yet the reality is that both Rafael and Tiffany are constantly struggling to stay in the relationship. Even though the attraction is very powerful, they are forever questioning whether or not this is, or should be, “the one.” This confusion is what brought them to my seminar.

What is completely missing from this picture, keeping this couple in a constant state of uncertainty and high drama, is a small-stuff approach to relationship maintenance. Rafael and Tiffany rally around the big stuff, and they do a great job of it. When they make a big connection they feel swept up in powerful tides of love, and it is not unusual to hear one of them exclaim, “I feel like I’ve fallen in love all over again!” But when those tides subside, they are still left feeling empty and depleted. That’s because the small stuff—the stuff that slowly accumulates over time into a solid relationship core—is regularly ignored. Simply put, they haven’t learned to take care of each other in smaller ways.

Don’t get me wrong. You need the big stuff to get you started in a relationship. But it’s the small stuff that gives your relationship its legs.

                                        Relationship Maintenance and “Capillary Action”

Relationship maintenance. What does this phrase mean to you? When you start to understand that every single relationship event—even the smallest gesture—has some emotional weight, your approach to relationship maintenance begins to change.

Men and women who ascribe to the “grand gesture” approach are always trying to reach their partners’ hearts by going through the large blood vessels. But truly loving couples know that love—the kind that holds firm, and grows over time—flows from one partner to the other every single day at the capillary level. Grand gestures certainly have their place; however, it is the steady stream of smaller signals, forming rich networks of attention and consideration, that makes a partner feel truly valued.

Capillary action gives a relationship its life and health. It’s not about the size of your heart or the power of your attraction, it’s about flow. Love has to flow steadily through the capillaries so your partner can feel your love in a consistent way. The big stuff doesn’t create that sense of consistency. It can “wow” you for a while, but it doesn’t build trust, and it doesn’t keep the connection feeling vital. That only happens when there is a stream of consistent loving messages that are being communicated in smaller moments through smaller, daily events.

Relationship maintenance is a small-stuff process.

                                                    Relationship Termites

Every small moment that is shared by two people is a relationship opportunity. It is a chance to fortify the connection—to make a richer, stronger bond. Every small moment that is missed is a lost opportunity. And every small moment that is mishandled or ignored can create what I call a “relationship termite.”

My wife and I know all about termites. When we rented our first apartment together, we noticed a few insects by the front window sill. We didn’t know what they were. Within a few months, the window frame had been cored. Tiny little things taking tiny little bites out of a huge, strong structure. But there is nothing tiny about the effects over time.

When I think back now about our experience in that apartment, I realize that I needed to see those termites with my own eyes and witness their destructive potential to learn a larger lesson about termite power in loving relationships. Being single taught me a lot of lessons about relationships, but it didn’t teach me about relationship termites. Those little bugs in the window gave me an image I could relate to.

Loving partners check regularly for “relationship termites,” because that’s what the relationship process is about. Too many relationships are weakened by termites. These couples aren’t fighting about money or sex; they are honestly engaged in daily conflicts of the “Why can’t you put the top back on the toothpaste?” variety.

Think about this the next time you are living through a small relationship moment and telling yourself, “It doesn’t matter.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t ask his/her opinion first.” “It doesn’t matter if I’m paying close attention or not.” “It doesn’t matter if I’m 100 percent honest right now.” “It doesn’t matter if I forget to call to say I’m running late.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t pick up my dirty socks.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t say ‘I love you’ this very moment.” “It doesn’t matter if I let the litter box go one more day.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t return his/her phone call this very instant.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t stop what I’m doing right now to listen more carefully to what he/she is saying.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t replace the roll of toilet paper.” “It doesn’t matter if I eat that piece of cake she/he was saving.” “It doesn’t matter if I dodge the grocery shopping.” “It doesn’t matter if I pour myself a drink and don’t offer to pour her/him one.” “It doesn’t matter if I’m a little late getting home most nights.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t make the bed today.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t send his/her sister a thank-you note.” “It doesn’t matter if I wake her/him up in the middle of the night.” “It doesn’t matter if I track a little bit of mud through the house on a rainy day.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t always say thank you.” “It doesn’t matter if I hog the hot water this morning.” “It doesn’t matter if I hog the blankets tonight.” “It doesn’t matter if I let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink today.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t take out the recycling this week.” “It doesn’t matter if I don’t fill the ice cube trays every time I empty them.” “It doesn’t matter if I leave the lights on when I’m not using them.”

When I look at this list, I see a giant mound of termites. Can you see this, too?

                                                  Rationalizing the Termites

Here’s another kind of termite mound, the mound that builds when we dismiss our own small needs and concerns and tell ourselves, “I don’t really mind . . .” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t always listen.” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t always say thank you.” “I don’t really mind that my partner makes plans without asking me first.” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t call when he/she is running late.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always the one who buys stamps.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always the one who washes the dishes.” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t leave me enough hot water for my shower.” “I don’t really mind that my partner plays loud music when I’m trying to work.” “I don’t really mind that my partner runs up the phone bill.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always the one paying for the expensive stuff.” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t always introduce me to his/her friends at parties.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always the second one to use the sink.” “I don’t really mind that my partner fills the house with magazines no one reads.” “I don’t really mind that my partner keeps fiddling with my computer software.” “I don’t really mind that my partner doesn’t regularly ask for my opinion.” “I don’t really mind that I’m the one who has to make most of the little decisions.” “I don’t really mind that my partner sometimes cuts me off mid-sentence.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always cleaning little hairs out of the sink.” “I don’t really mind that I’m always the one who turns out all the lights.” “I don’t really mind that my partner just ate the last chocolate chip cookie.”

These are the kinds of termites we are particularly good at rationalizing to protect our partner and protect our feeling of being connected. We tell ourselves things like, “She’s doing the best she can.” “He didn’t learn this as a kid.” “She has parents who set a bad example.” “He has sibling issues.” “He doesn’t realize how much hot water he’s using.” “She doesn’t realize I was waiting to share that chocolate chip cookie.” “He hates to cook, and I really don’t mind.” “She doesn’t realize that she hasn’t introduced me to these friends.” “He loses track of time when he’s on the phone.” “She probably couldn’t find a phone to call me and tell me she’d be home late.” “He’s under a lot of pressure and the loud music helps him relax.” “She’s more stressed about money than I am.” Do any of these rationalizations sound familiar? There’s just one problem, and it is not a small one: Rationalizations can make you feel better, but they don’t make your relationship better. Rationalizing termites doesn’t eliminate the termites, it just drives them underground where they can chew closer to the relationship foundation.


De-Bugging Your Relationship, One Termite at a Time


Living in southern California, I have learned something else about termites: Every house has them. Every relationship also has its termites. Emotional connections are always vulnerable in that way. So I don’t expect you (or me, for that matter) to build a relationship that is termite-free. It isn’t possible. What I do expect, however, is that you take the termite problem seriously, and do your best to minimize the damage by adopting a small-stuff approach to relationship maintenance.

You might want to take a few moments right now to get a pen and paper and make a list of the termites that have been feasting on your relationship lately. Think about the little things you tend to dismiss, ignore, or rationalize away. Think about the little things that upset you, annoy you, confuse you, or make you uncomfortable—even the very smallest things. Having this list, and keeping it current, keeps your termites in plain sight where they can’t do as much damage. This is not always fun, but it keeps you in touch with your little struggles and gives you more opportunity to squash a few bugs.