Small, subtle gestures are ‘key to a relationship’s success’

Everyone loves being treated to a big bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolates, or a romantic dinner every now and again.

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But while the big gestures in a relationship are undoubtedly valued, it’s the smaller, subtle ones that could be the key to a successful long-term partnership.

From the touch of an arm, to a smile while your partner is speaking, there are tiny ways you can show love, which anyone from the outside simply wouldn’t notice. Sian Khuman, practice specialist for therapeutic services at Relationships Australia, told Starts at 60 , says these tiny acts are “absolutely” key at every age, and that by building up over time, they can have more impact than one big gesture.

“As couples get more and more attuned to each other, they’re more and more sensitive in reading the very small, subtle gestures,” she explained.

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Experts came to the same conclusion in a recent study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. “The top scenarios that came back weren’t necessarily romantic,” Saeideh Heshmati from Penn State University said, according to  the Sydney Morning Herald. “So it is possible for people to feel loved in simple, everyday scenarios. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top gestures.”

In the same way, however, small, negative gestures can also build up over time, and have a more damaging effect on a relationship than one act.

“I think the Four Horsemen – as John Gottman calls them – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, are the bigger ones that you can see and are very obvious to the eye,” Khuman told Starts at 60. “You can see the eye-rolls, you can hear the contemptuous tone.

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“But there are smaller gestures and non-verbals you’re less likely to pick up as an observer, that couples are able to see straight away. They can be so subtle, and if there is a multitude of negative ones, then it can build up as quite a lot of negative messages to the other person. It’s so dangerous to have that without discussing and talking it through, because if you don’t, it builds up a negative cup.”

Gottman and Robert Levenson ran a study on couples in the 1970s that found the difference between happy and unhappy couples was the balance between positive and negative interactions made in a fight, she explained. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, while they watched the interaction.

On following up with the couples nine years later, it turned out they had managed to predict which couples would stay together and which would divorce with over 90 per cent accuracy.

Khuman says she believes, as Gottman did, that successful, long-term couples had about 20 positive interactions for every one negative interaction in their relationship, and reckons that five-to-one was an absolute minimum.

She explained: “If you’re constantly doing very positive things like touching your partner’s arm, smiling at them when they talk, leaning towards them when they speak, standing close to them, they’re very subtle and no one would pick them up, but a couple would because they’re so intimate and connected, and sensitive to each other’s messages.”

Do you agree that smaller gestures are important for a successful relationship?