It’s the little things that count

littlethingsTrue oneness isn’t built overnight.

by Sheila Wray Gregoire

One of my favourite movies is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sliding Doors. It follows a woman’s life in two possible scenarios, based on whether she missed a particular subway train or whether she caught it just in time.

We often think that the pivotal moments in our lives are the big ones: when we propose; when we recite our vows; when we accept a job; have a child; purchase a house. But I’m starting to realize the really pivotal moments are far smaller—so small we may not recognize them.

Like Sliding Doors, one little decision can launch a chain reaction. Take a marriage, for instance. People don’t divorce just because one Sunday afternoon it occurs to them that the one they wed is a weasel. It happens gradually, by the little decisions that they make together.

He decides to start working harder to get that promotion, and it becomes easier to just grab dinner on the run rather than making an effort to come home. She becomes wrapped up in the kids’ lives, and when he does make it home, she’s preoccupied with their little ones. He forges strong friendships at work, where he spends most of his time, and shares with them his career goals. She meets some friends in chat rooms, and starts sharing with them her insecurities. Soon the only thing they talk about is the kids. The relationship has faded. And yet it wasn’t due to any one thing; it was a series of small decisions.

As depressing as that scenario may be, though, the opposite is also true. When you want to watch a game, but put it aside because she obviously needs to talk, you build goodwill. When she thanks you for the work you do around the house, even when she wishes you would do more, she builds goodwill. When you tell the kids what a great mom they have, while she’s in earshot, even if the family has eaten take out for the last two nights because life’s been too chaotic to cook, you build goodwill. As we start to show love in the little things, we feel more kindly towards each other. And then, the next time you do something that would normally irk your spouse, she overlooks it because of the foundation of goodwill you’ve built up.

While that scenario sounds sunny, what happens if she’s not reciprocating in the kindness department? It’s not easy to reach out when the other person is pulling away. And when two people grow apart, quite often the blame does lie more heavily with one than the other. You may legitimately feel that she is neglecting your needs and feelings, or being too demanding. But that’s all the more reason to take that first step and change the dynamic.

[During the Easter season I was] contemplating a verse that at first glance may not seem to have much to do with marriage: Romans 5:8. It says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He died for us before we apologized, before we changed, before we showed Him any love at all. And guys, I know it’s easy for me, as a woman, to point this out, but He asks you to act the same way.

Is it fair? Nope. But what has fair really got to do with it? Isn’t saving your marriage, and making sure you stay madly in love, worth it?

I’m reminded of an experiment that took place off of the Brazilian coast. Two glass bottles were dropped off a ship simultaneously. One drifted east, washing up 130 days later off the coast of Africa. The other drifted northwest, landing in Nicaragua 190 days later. They started in exactly the same place. They ended up half a world apart from each other.

Something similar is at play with our marriages. We can never drift together; we can only ever drift apart. When you’re not paying attention to the small things in your relationship, you won’t end up closer. You’ll only end up separate, little by little, wave by wave, as different currents catch you. If you want to go through life in tandem with someone, you have to be intentional about those little things. Too many people ignore their relationships until a crisis hits. That’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, care for those little things when there is no crisis, and you’ll be able to navigate those choppy waters much better.

Are you up for the challenge? Can you decide to turn off the TV and help her with the dishes? Can you give the kids a bath? Can you kiss her even when she’s been standoffish? Or here’s the real test: Can you hold her, and snuggle, and then roll over and go to sleep peacefully, even if you’d rather the evening had ended much more vigorously?

Two people do not become strangers overnight. Likewise, true oneness isn’t built overnight. Through the little choices that we make, we can gradually choose to let the gulf grow wider and wider, or we can turn toward each other. So in the little things, what course will you choose?

The article above was featured in the march/april 2011 issue of SEVEN magazine.