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Cuddles and cuppas: the importance of small gestures in relationships

Small gestures like unexpected gifts and surprise cups of tea can make a big difference to your relationship.

A major study conducted by The Open University and published in 2013 [1] discovered that deceptively simple actions such as saying ‘thank you’ to your partner, touching base during the day with a text message or even just bringing your partner a cup of tea in bed could be the foundations of a long and successful relationship.

The study conducted an online survey which had over 5,000 respondents and 50 in-depth interviews. As part of the survey, people were asked to answer questions such as “What two things do you like best about your relationship?”.

The results were clear: what people valued most from their partner are small everyday words, gestures and actions. Very few respondents said that their happiness depended on grand romantic gestures like being whisked away on a luxury holiday.

Although some people mentioned typical gifts like flowers and chocolates, most emphasised the thoughtfulness of the way the gift was presented and its meaning to them individually, rather than just being touched by the gift itself. For example, picking up a box of your partner’s favourite chocolates from a shop she loves but can never get to is likely to be more meaningful than a box of standard chocolates from the supermarket.

So many people wrote that they feel appreciated when their partner makes them a cup of tea that the researchers had to give this very British gesture its own category. They noted that such a “high level of agreement” across over 10,000 different responses was “remarkable”.

But the gesture most highly valued was gratitude. Simply thanking your partner for something they have done, whether that’s household chores, giving you a lift, childcare or any other simple task, was the most important thing for all participants of the survey, regardless of age, gender, sexuality and whether or not they were parents.

The report says that the most important thing anyone can do in a relationship is to recognise the “time and effort required to complete the everyday, mundane tasks which underpin relationships and smooth running of a household”. If your partner does a lot of chores around the house, then letting them know how much you appreciate this might be a good place to start.

With 200,000 to 250,000 couples separating each year [2], this advice might be especially important to married parents. The research suggested that parents are the least likely to make time for each other or for ‘couple time’, to pause each day to say ‘I love you’ or perform any of the small gestures mentioned which add up to the ‘relationship work’ that keeps you close and in love.

Communication is often flagged as a major part of keeping a relationship going, and we talk about it regularly on this site. But communication doesn’t have to mean lengthy emotional discussions. Simple emails and texts during the day, sharing something funny you saw, or taking two minutes to send a quick ‘I love you’ text can brighten your partner’s day and keep you bonded throughout the hustle and bustle of your lives outside the home. Being able to share things with your partner, talking openly, and feeling supported with your problems are also an important part of good communication.

If you’re looking for a few ideas on little things to remember, below is a list of the top answers for what makes people feel appreciated by their partner: 

What does your partner do that makes you feel appreciated?
  • Says thank you and/or gives me compliments. 
  • Gives me cards, gifts, flowers etc.
  • Does/shares the household chores and/or childcare.
  • Talks with me and listens to me.
  • Is physically affectionate.
  • Says and/or shows s/he loves me.
  • Cooks some/all of our meals.
  • Makes kind and thoughtful gestures. 
  • Makes me tea, coffee and/or breakfast in bed.
  • Supports and looks after me.
  • Is always there for me.
  • Values me and respects my opinions.
  • Makes time to be together, as a couple.
  • Supports my personal interests/career.
  • Sexual intimacy.

These little things mean a lot. You might want to put some reminders in your phone or diary to make ‘couple time’ or do something special for your partner once in a while – what that ‘something special’ is will be different for each person. The uniqueness and specialness of the gesture is just as important as the act of performing it. And if you aren’t sure, why not just ask? Care and loving attention like that is the sort of thing that good quality relationships are built on.

What does your partner do that makes you feel special? Tell us in the comments below.



[2] Coleman, L., & Glenn, F. (2009). When Couples Part. London: OnePlusOne Publications 

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