The 18th Century Zen poet and teacher wrote “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” That describes the relentless search for new “truths” that promise to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy with your partner. But sometimes the most important information stares you right in the face; you don’t “see” it because it’s so obvious.
Here’s an example: It’s found in some new research on couples’ relationships from the University of North Carolina. It finds that couples whose partners feel and express appreciation to each other, and who take time to share in moments of joy tend to experience more ongoing, positive connections with each other. Such opportunities occur, especially, in the small moments that occur every day, in many people’s lives. But they’re often overlooked or ignored.
According to the lead researcher Sara Algoe, the findings point to the significance of “the little things.” They have big impact on relationship longevity and wellbeing. Moreover, we know that many other studies, have found that positive relationships are associated with greater overall health, over the years.
In a summary of the research, Algoe points out that one partner’s expression of gratitude reminds the other partner that he or she is a good relationship companion. The research method is described in detail here, but the upshot is that couples who expressed gratitude towards each other in those small moments reported that their relationships become stronger, more positive and flexible in their interactions with each other.
“Whenever you have an interaction with your romantic partner,” Algoe explains, “that feeling you have when you walk away sets the stage for the next interaction with that person.” And, expressions of appreciation and gratitude show that that they “…can help connect people and build these upward spirals of mutual love and support.”
Additional research adds to the value of building connection in the many small ways available to couples. For example, sharing humorous moments and laughing together. “People who spent more time laughing with their partner felt that they were more similar to their partner,” Algoe says. “They had this overlapping sense of self with the other person. We also found that the more people laughed with their romantic partner, the more they felt they were supported by that person.”
Of course, building and sustaining long-term intimacy is complex. It requires developing your own self-awareness and collaboration with your partner, especially around differences of outlook and life goals that may emerge over time. But recognizing and practicing little “truths” that are hidden in plain sight can contribute to the foundation for stronger, sustaining intimacy as both partners change and grow.