By Paula Spencer Scott, Caring.com senior editor
Want to let someone know they’re loved? Try using actions, rather than words. “Love is an action verb,” says Jamie Comstock, a professor of communication at Butler University in Indianapolis. “To really feel the love, the other person has to sense the message in nonverbal ways.”
Here are five surprising things to know about gestures that say, “I love you” — words optional.
1. Small weekly gifts “count” more than rare, splashy ones.
The underlying love message: “I’m committed to you.”
Saving up for those pricey Valentine’s roses and jewelry in a velvet box? Think twice, if it means you can’t afford smaller tokens of affection the rest of the year. That’s not to say flowers and jewels aren’t welcome or good gifts. But grand gestures shouldn’t usurp more frequent demonstrations of your love.
Frequent contact is one of the best signs of commitment, according to Comstock. “Your mom will appreciate a large box of candy on Valentine’s Day, but if she doesn’t hear from you again until Mother’s Day, she won’t sense the love in the gesture,” Comstock says.
Those small gestures don’t have to be store-bought tokens; they can take the form of a daily catch-up with a traveling lover, the everyday loving gestures you show a spouse — making the bed first, bringing him coffee, scraping ice from her car in the morning — or a weekly call to your aging parents.
2. Frequent touching speaks louder than words.
The underlying love message: “We’re connected.”
Whether you’re hugging your dad or caressing a lover, touch telegraphs affection faster than words do. Thank your brain and your skin’s abundant nerve endings for why touch feels so nice. The emotional brain “gets” touch communication more immediately than it understands words, which have to be processed first through the speech centers, says David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington, and author of Love Signals.
“If seeing is believing, touching is knowing,” he says.
Touch comes naturally to couples falling in love but notoriously fades over time. Older adults tend to respond especially strongly to touch as a signal of love because they’re often “touch deprived,” says Comstock.
Counter that trend with a daily intentional hug, a shoulder squeeze, letting your knees touch as you sit opposite each other. See 9 Wordless Ways Someone Says, “I Love You”.
3. Doing slightly complicated things for your loved one brings you closer.
The underlying love message: “I’m willing to put forth special effort for you.”
“The more effort you put into a gesture of love, the more the recipient feels the love,” Comstock says. A perception that you’ve gone the extra mile decreases the psychological distance between the two of you. So, for example, leaving a treasure hunt of post-it notes bearing hearts registers higher on the “you love me!” scale than a rote “I love you” verbally tacked onto the end of every phone conversation.
More examples: A carefully planned getaway weekend or scanning a lifetime of old prints into digital images. Just make sure the gesture involves planning and forethought on your part — and that the recipient knows it wasn’t contracted out to a third party (executive assistant, travel agent) to arrange.
How corny these efforts are depends on your taste and their execution. But what they have in common: a lover’s effort.
4. Activities that “mirror” reinforce a common courtship behavior.
The underlying love message: “We’re so in synch.”
Go dancing. Take a walk together. The operative word is together. As you take a walk with a companion, for example, you tend to fall into step with each other, matching your strides, going in the same direction, seeing the same things en route. Dancing requires an even more closely matched echoing of your behaviors.
We unconsciously imitate each other when we feel close, which reinforces further closeness. Couples do this unconsciously all the time: Watch a pair who are flirting. Social scientists call this “synchrony” — simultaneous action – when members of a social pair match their behaviors. “It’s a strong way of being alike,” Givens says.
Those who want to express love that’s sure to be felt can borrow a page from the same playbook and mirror their behaviors in intentional ways.
“The more alike you are, the more you like each other,” Givens says.
5. Nothing thrills like a little inside knowledge.
The underlying love message: “I know you and feel close to you.”
A new shirt is nice. One that’s monogrammed (for a recipient who likes them) is even better. But best of all, if you’re trying to convey, “I love you”: a gift that reflects that you’re paying attention to the relationship.
That can mean something you made yourself just for the person, or something that reflects an inside joke or insider knowledge about the person’s passions and preferences. How much you spend isn’t the point here; it’s how much you spend emotionally. So winning choices might include a handmade card, a CD of handpicked tunes, a framed photo of the two of you, an item that you observed the recipient coveting or needing months ago, or a scrapbook looking back on a long marriage or celebrating an older parent’s life.
“The most valued gifts to a receiver are those the person knows are just for him or her,” Comstock says. “If I’m debating whether to buy my dad a shirt or make him a batch of chocolate chip cookies to show my love for him, the cookies send a stronger message because I know they’re his favorite thing — and he knows I know this and did it for him. He could buy his own shirt.
“The strongest relationship messages we send cost almost nothing,” Comstock says.