Columnist Leigh Newman reveals the small but enormously encouraging things we can say to the ones we love most.
Nice Thing #1: "The way you handled that huge, hairy spider on the wall of the shower was hot."
This is also known as "the way you handled that insane toddler temper tantrum was hot" or "the way you handled that endless grocery list was hot." The most joy-inducing aspect of each of these examples is that you're not being cute or indulging in flattery in order to make your partner feel good. Completing these kinds of trying tasks do have a nugget of honest-to-God sexiness. Bravery, even in the face of bugs, is sexy. So is self-control and patience in the face of a furious child throwing blocks around his room. So is grit and determination in the face of 76 aisles of glittering food products and a cashier who won't take coupons. So your other half didn't save a kitten from a burning house this week. Recognizing his everyday acts of heroism makes those acts -- and him -- feel spectacularly unordinary, if not extraordinary.
Nice Thing #2: "You smell like the day I met you."
Scientific study after scientific study has proven that scent influences how human beings perceive possible mates. As Jesse Bering, a psychologist at Queen's University Belfast, puts it in his Scientific American roundup of pretty much all the research ever done on the subject, the "ambient odors" that are paired in our minds with any one particular person "can modulate our feelings of attraction toward them." Speaking from the laboratory of life, I think most of us remember exactly what our soul mates smelled like the first time we met them (mine: fresh laundry, hint of Golden Delicious) because no matter what the smell was, be it sweat, soap, daisies or dog, it smelled good. Over time, the hair on the object of your affections may grow thin, his girth expand. But helping him realize that he still smells like he's 25 is also a reminder that attraction springs eternal.
Nice Thing #3: "I love you even if I can't do anything about it right now."
Say this after flopping into bed, which comes after putting the kids to bed, which comes after doing the dishes, which comes after making dinner, which comes after reading everybody's homework, which comes after working all day, which comes after the long morning drive into the city, which comes after making breakfast, which comes after waking up at 5 a.m. to do the exercise bike. Say it before you sprint to your separate cars to go to different events at night. Say it during exceptionally long dinners where you're seated very far away from each other.
Why? In all those instances when, due to time or space or exhaustion, the two of you fail to connect, this little sentence prevents all the horrid, typical questions from flitting through either of your minds, like "Has our marriage become just a friendship?" or "What if he is seeing somebody else?" Instead, your partner is left with the thing that he's not always able to see as you blur by or pass out: your feelings.
Nice Thing #4: "Thank you."
If a leprechaun showed up at your door with a bag filled with fresh bread, whole milk and a bunch of bananas, and then proceeded to unpack it all and put it away in your kitchen cupboards, would you really say, "Oh Mr. Leprechaun, how many times have I told you whole wheat, not white"? Or would you really say nothing and keep typing away at your email because you buy groceries all the time? (Why should you turn backflips for a leprechaun just because he decided to restock the pantry this once?)
I suspect neither. In fact, I would guess that you would thank the little guy politely, if not add a hug because he chose the bananas that were on the yellow side, the way you like them, even though he so clearly prefers them -- duh -- green. The uncomfortable truth is that sometimes we're more gracious with creatures from Irish folklore than with our partners. Which is why when you demonstrate courtesy to yours, you're doing more than thanking him for buying the groceries or for handing you the glass of water, you're recognizing him as a human being.
Nice Thing #5: "I heard what you said about tax rebates, and here is what I did about it."
Feel free to replace tax rebates with sexy lingerie or Giants tickets or the weird sound the AC is making. In any of these cases, the content of your partner's original comment is not important. What's going to make him very pleased is that you listened to what he said. Listening, as we know, is a wonderful thing. It makes people feel seen and understood. But on those rare occasions when you can announce to your partner that you not only heard him but also went ahead and took action about what he said, your partner will be over the moon. Doing is a tangible, irrefutable sign that, regardless of whether you agreed with your partner, you cared about him enough to put some effort into his happiness -- even if that action was taking a hammer and breaking the AC into little, silent plastic pieces.
Nice Thing #6: "It's okay that you crashed the car... again."
My nickname in my marriage is Crash, as in, Leigh "Crash" Newman. This is because I am a fender bender. I am a backer-into-the-fire-hydranter. And yet every time, my husband, looking at the latest crumpled bumper on our car or most recent shattered side mirror, says, "It's okay, Crash." I know that he is lying; he loves cars. And he knows that I know he is lying. And yet, to me, this lie is a sweet nothing of deceit, a falsehood tucked into a bouquet of bluebells. It makes me feel accepted for my faults, even the ones I do over and over. There is something relatively minor that your partner does -- like breaking dishes or being late or eating all the cookies -- that's not okay. But you can lie about it. They will see through you. They will try to do better. But they will also know that you love them enough not to tell the truth and to give them yet another chance to try to change.
Nice Thing #7: "No, you sleep in tomorrow."
Of course, saying this may mean that your partner will follow you around for days, shouting your praises to strangers.
Nice Thing #8: "I absolutely love how you stop and look at historical markers like your mom does."
When you praise a partner for doing something that his parent does, you're effectively giving them a double whammy of affection. First, you're making it clear that you're enjoying what your partner is doing -- say, stopping at a historical marker so you both can learn something about a Civil War battle before going to the mall -- and everybody likes it when you like what they like.
Secondly, you're acknowledging something wonderful about the human being who, literally, made him. Even in the most difficult cases, where that parent may be absent or challenging or even just prone to yelling during Thanksgiving dinner, simply pointing out something helpful or interesting or kind that the parent handed down will cause a sudden rush of love and gratitude in your partner for that parent. That's what love is about: how you help the people you love feel it -- not just for you, but for others, if not for everything and everyone.