In marriage, the little things are really the big things.

In business it is well recognised that getting the ‘big things right’ are important, but it is often the so-called ‘little things’ that make the difference between good and great companies.

We were remined of this the other day when reading about a US company that specialises in disaster-restoration. It jumps into action following a flood, tornado, or after fire damages or destroys a community. It’s tough, dirty, dangerous work.

To express his appreciation, CEO Sheldon Yellen writes a personal handwritten birthday card to every employee every year, plus additional anniversary cards, thank-you notes, and messages for a job well done.

That may sound like a small thing but under his leadership the company has grown from $5 million in revenue to more than $1.5 billion and so last year that represented 9,200 birthday cards and a total of over 12,000 handwritten notes.

His job requires him to fly a lot and so on every flight he boards the plane with a bag filled with cards, pre-addressed envelopes, a blue gel pen and – skipping the meal and movies – he writes about 150 cards per flight.

It’s no different in our marriage. Big things matter of course, but that’s not enough. It’s the small, everyday gestures, actions of generosity, restraint and thoughtfulness that actually do the heavy lifting in our marriage.

Small gestures – whether in words, body language or handwritten messages – send big signals about who we are and what we care about. These become the daily habits that nourish and till the soil of our marriage.

It’s true that, often, our small gestures go unrecognised and so we think unappreciated. But the fact they are often unrecognised does not mean they are not appreciated or not working. It’s a bit like healthy eating or exercise; it’s the absence of a heart attack years later that can be the pay-off, but we may fail to notice the impact because the heart attack never happened!

These gestures and actions fall into different categories: acts of service, gestures of appreciation and bids for connection for example.

Acts of Service

Small, simple acts of service are pretty obvious; emptying the dishwasher which takes a few minutes at most before racing out the door in the morning, refuelling the car before its needed, making our spouse’s side of the bed while he or she showers.

As you are reading this you are probably having the same reaction we are having while writing it. “Are you serious? These are so trivial!”

True, but in each case, they involve doing something our spouse does not expect, nor has asked us to do. Rather, we act because we are generously doing some small thing so they don’t have to.

We don’t think our spouse will notice an empty dishwasher, but he sure will notice when he opens it and it’s still full of clean dishes (with the day’s dirty dishes stacked ‘thoughtfully’ in the sink).

We think the other won’t notice the car was refuelled but she was probably unconsciously keeping an eye on the petrol gauge thinking about when it will be least inconvenient to refuel as she rushes around her week.

A freshly made bed may be easily overlooked, but the visual pollution of an unmade bed is an unwelcome sight.

Truth be told, we notice these things more than we know, we just fail to acknowledge them!

Appreciation Gestures

Small gestures of appreciation take more conscious effort, because unlike a full dishwasher, an empty gas tank or an unmade bed, there is no obvious trigger for us to key off; we can go a whole day, week or month without showing our appreciation or gratitude to each other and the world keeps functioning.

This is one of the reasons they are so beneficial, because they come out of the blue and are therefore unexpected. The other reason, of course, is that we all appreciate it when we are thanked and acknowledged – more so for when it is for one of those aptly named “thankless tasks” that describes much of what we do every day in marriage and family life.

Gestures of appreciation do NOT involve a dozen red roses or a candle-lit dinner. Nothing wrong with those but a simple, “thanks for bringing those bins in for me”, “you were so lovely with the kids tonight”, “I appreciated the sleep in this morning” is really what we are talking about. It’s even better when we mix it up; a spoken word, a scratching on a sticky note, pausing for a hug and kind word.

Connection Bids

Bids for connection are equally simple but important. These are the small acts we make to reconnect especially when things are tense or there is distance between us; sometimes because we have had an argument, or we have let the other down, are hurt or disappointed by them, or have simply been too busy to stay in touch with the other.

These are like a ‘footbridge to unity’ when we don’t quite know how to start or the chasm between us just seems too far to bridge.

Bids for connection are simple gestures that demonstrate care and therefore a desire for connection with the other. They are trivial on the surface but monumentally important. “Can I get you anything?”, “would you like a cup of tea?”, a long hug or deep gaze, are just some of our simple examples that help us to reconnect.

They are similar in appearance to many small acts of service or gestures of appreciation, but they are delivered at a time when we are disconnected and thus provide a simple, safe way to restart. They don’t work perfectly every time, but when they do, they are like someone has thrown us a life ring when we’re drifting in dark and stormy waters.

Small Investment, Big Payback

These so-called small things work, not only because they positively impact the person to which we have committed our life, but, because they drive positive habitual practices that become second nature. When both of us are doing these simple, ‘little’ things day in and day out they bring a positive, reinforcing lifestyle to our marriage.

They build a resilience and so, just like that ‘heart attack we never had’ the whole journey is that bit easier than it might have been, even if we don’t realise it. Likewise, if we do have that heart attack – because after all, we will mess up in our relationship – it’s less likely to be terminal and our recovery will be easier.

And on those days when we wonder if any of this really makes a difference, picture an unexpectedly humbled Sheldon Yellen when he turned 60 and received over 8,000 handwritten birthday cards from his employees… all who wanted to find a fitting way to acknowledge their appreciation for his care.