Our friends, Beth and Sam, flew across the country recently. On the return trip, Sam exhausted all the entertainment he had downloaded on his iPad and was casting about, looking for something to hold his attention for the rest of the trip. His countenance sank as he contemplated the long, dreary ride ahead of him.

His wife, Beth, on the other hand, was much better prepared. Her iPad had used up every last bit of storage and it was loaded with entertainment possibilities, a rare relaxation she was eagerly anticipating. But Beth also had some magazines and an actual book stored in her carry-on. After some inner debate, Beth handed her iPad to a grateful Sam and opened a magazine.

This may not seem like such spectacular behavior (especially if you haven’t flown recently and have forgotten how long, uncomfortable and boring flying can be!) but it fits perfectly within a new category that researchers are calling “compassionate love” – “recognizing a partner’s needs and concerns and putting them ahead of your own.” (Wall Street Journal, 02/12/13)

In Jewish life, we just call it giving. The article calls on “experts” to inform us those small, selfless acts between spouses aren’t just nice – they’re necessary. Well, hello! Is this supposed to be news? Haven’t we understood that for a few thousand years? And haven’t our parents and teachers told us repeatedly that “actions speak louder than words”? How could this idea merit a whole piece in the Wall Street Journal, let alone researchers and experts?

I think the answer lies in the fact that, even though we know it to be true, even though we all recognize that giving to our spouses builds our marriages, expresses our caring and deepens our love, we get busy.

We get tired. We take the relationship for granted. So even though we “know,” we need a reminder. Because it’s easier to just operate on automatic.

“Compassionate love” (i.e. giving!) requires thought. It forces us to break out of our habits and act differently. It necessitates constant introspection; we must always be asking ourselves “What does he need?” “What would she like?”

That’s hard work. Coasting is easier. We frequently just operate on automatic pilot. But a marriage can’t survive on cruise control. We need to keep nurturing and feeding the relationship.

We can’t allow ourselves to become complacent or, God forbid, indifferent.

The article cites the example of a man who warms up the car for his wife on cold mornings. This is the perfect act of giving (perhaps underappreciated here in southern California).

It doesn’t require money (so anyone can do it!) but it does necessitate effort. It demands stepping out of our comfort zone (that cozy, warm house) to do a kindness for someone we care about. It changes the morning for both of them – for the husband because his act of selfless caring enhances his marriage and endears his wife to him and for the wife because she feels taken care of, loved, safe and secure. And she will most likely respond in kind (even though that can’t be the motivation).

We create so many negative cycles in our relationships; wouldn’t it be nice to create some positive ones as well? We can’t give in order to get, but an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and consideration is contagious.

I’m sure we can all think of new ways to give to our partners. I’m sure we can all discover more opportunities to recognize their kindness to us and to express appreciation. If we really put their needs ahead of ours, the ideas just won’t stop coming. It can be as simple as going out to his favorite restaurant (instead of yours!) or turning the heat on because you know she’s cold (even though you’re not) or as grand as setting aside your vacation plans in New York City for hiking in Utah.

The size of the gesture, the money involved, the time and effort – none of these are what really counts – the key is that their needs come first. The article was entitled “Small Acts, Big Love” because, in the end, that’s what you get.