A few days ago, when I slid into the driver’s seat for the first time since the anesthetic haze following surgery had cleared, I buckled up for my debut solo excursion in nearly a month. I noticed how spotless the windshield looked. The car was immaculate. Lint and debris had disappeared from the seats and floor mats. Bottles of water sat in the spaces designed for them. Clearly my husband had intended to surprise me.
I was delighted. His unexpected actions have long left me glowing in appreciation and gratitude. Later that day, I asked two friends to share moments when they had been surprised. One’s husband had greeted her just that morning with a selection of seed packets along with his observation that our March morning promised she could plant soon. The other smiled shyly and shared a photo of her Christmas gift, one that had been presented to her 15 months before. Her husband had promised to bring her breakfast in bed every morning. Now, more than a year later, he was still showing his commitment by honoring his word. Their grown daughter, impressed, had recently taken the photo during a visit to her parents’ home.
Surprises can be a magical way to show I love you.
What sorts of surprises might be welcome?
- Practical help. By doing something that needs doing and that the loved one may not have the time, resources, or skills to do, a surprise not only gets the task done but can bring the added relief of taking it off the to-do list. Unfinished business is a huge energy drain.
- Providing beauty. Flowers mysteriously appear on the table. The bed pillows are arranged in a new and attractive design. He serves a dinner that appeals to the eye as well as the palate. Each morning I dress carefully. When living in Paris, I had learned that local women carefully put themselves together in order to bring smiles to those they encounter. This traditional Parisian nod to how we are all connected convinced me that investing a few minutes each day hoping to bring a moment of pleasure was an easy way to add respect in the world.
A touch of comfort. An unexpected cup of tea during a long day says “I understand.” An extra blanket draped across shoulders on a cold night says “I want you to be warm.” A gift package of favorite pens, the ones that glide across the paper, transforms the very activity of writing into fun.
- A bit of whimsy. Once I wrote notes of gratitude to my husband on multi-colored post-its. I embellished them with peel-and-stick gold stars, the ones that teachers give to earnest students, and hid them all over the house. Each time he discovered a new note, he grinned. Years later, one remains affixed to the inner lid of the wooden box where he keeps watches and cuff-links. How many parents tuck a note with a happy thought into a lunch box each day?
How and why do surprises show love?
- For a surprise to please rather than annoy, it must be one that shows understanding of the beloved, even when he or she denies a desire but secretly harbors it. Jonathan Safran Foer captured an example of this scenario magnificently on pages 491-493 of his recent book, Here I Am. Knowing what is truly wanted by the other shows attention to the loved one and his or her cues.
- A surprise that shows knowledge of the loved one reflects a level of intimacy, affirming comfort with closeness. Flowers for a person who is allergic to them is not a pleasant surprise; perhaps a jar of her favorite jam would be a better choice. My husband knows I dislike emptying the dishwasher and often surprises me when I open it and find it in pristine condition. Sometimes he exclaims, “Happiness is an empty dishwasher!”
- A surprise can show forethought, and thus an extra measure of attention to allocating resources.
- Surprises can alter moods. By providing an encounter with the unexpected, you can jolt a person out of their mindset and into the present. Two benefits can follow. The sudden positive emotion can replace a momentary darker one. In addition, over time, expectations themselves can shift. This is particularly helpful if a person needs more optimism in their life. Finding happy surprises can eventually temper a response to the unexpected, shifting what was once a reaction of fear or aversion to the unknown into curiosity.
What was the last surprise that made you smile? How have you recently surprised someone you love? Did you ever receive an unwanted surprise and then, most challenging, manage to explain why your reaction was not the one expected? In what ways did that exchange affect your relationship?
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower First published on PsychologyToday.com, Life, Refracted