“I mean, I watched The Notebook thirty times by myself!”
A lightbulb went off in my head when my friend Lana said this, and it finally shed some light on our topic of conversation.
She continued, “You know that scene where Noah asks Allie out by hanging from one arm on the Ferris wheel? I want that and it’s just…you know, never THAT.”
“You mean that scene where the guy rudely interrupts a couple he’s never met on their date, repeatedly ignores the word “No” from the woman, and publicly embarrasses her into shouting that she wanted to go on a date with him?” I responded incredulously.
“Well yeah, but it’s so….romantic.”
Lana was beautiful, sweet, and ready for commitment, but she always had a really hard time dating. After another disappointing date with a guy she was seeing, we had spent the last hour exploring why she struggled so much to sustain healthy romantic connections. Now it all made sense.
Lana’s parents had divorced when she was 10. She had never had healthy role models for what a loving relationship should look like. Like so many of us, she’d also been influenced by Hollywood to determine the kind of love she wanted.
What did Hollywood teach her?
Hollywood taught her that if someone really loves you, they’ll drop everything in their lives and run through the airport to chase you; they’ll hijack the PA system to let you know how they feel; or they will put themselves in mortal danger to impress you.
In the movies, true acts of love are grandiose, public, and intense. Up on the big screen, it doesn’t matter how disrespectful, judgmental, or boundary-breaking someone’s behavior has been, all that matters is that they shout at the top of their lungs that they love you.
Let’s stop this. Let’s remind ourselves that love isn’t a singular big stunt, it’s about showing up consistently every day, not just for one grand finale. It’s about building trust not manipulating emotion. It’s about all the moments that people can’t see. The power lies not in how obvious the gesture is, but how subtle it is. They shouldn’t have to scream it at the top of their lungs because you should be able to feel it in everything they do.
There is nothing wrong with extravagant romantic gestures, so long as we do not use them as an excuse to overlook bad behavior, or let them blind us to subtler acts of love that are actually meaningful.
Lana was missing out because she kept looking for someone to behave the way they did in movies. She did eventually find an amazing relationship, but it was only after she started appreciating these subtle and more powerful ways that her partner was showing love.
1. They care even when it’s inconvenient.
Lana called me one day at 11 pm and asked if I could stay over — she had just found out that her father had cancer. I dropped everything and started packing some essentials, all the while wondering where her boyfriend was.
“Ryan has a big exam next week. He said he doesn’t have the headspace to comfort me right now but promised we’ll go somewhere fancy next week after his exams. I guess it’s OK. I mean nothing is going to change for my dad in a week,” she said as if reading my mind.
The worst part of this was that Ryan had convinced her that since there were no physical needs, her emotional needs could wait. He had not even made sure she was okay. It bothered me that she was starting to believe that this was acceptable behavior. What he was saying was, “I’ll care about you when it’s convenient for me.”
Today, Lana is with someone who tells her to wake him up if she feels anxious because he wants to be able to be there for her. She has never once had to because simply knowing that her anxiety will be greeted with comfort has completely transformed her into a calm and secure person.
Why this is powerful
Everyone can be loving when things are easy but true emotional safety can only be built when you never have to question whether that person will be there for you or not. Intimacy and vulnerability rely on us knowing that when we ask for things, our partner will respond to us and our needs will be met.
2. They save their best selves for you.
When Lana and Ryan first broke up, everyone was surprised. He seemed like such a nice guy. He was to everyone else, but not always to her. For example, whenever Ryan woke up in a bad mood and was running late for work, he would snap at Lana and rush out the door. But as soon as he was at the coffee shop, he would put on his best smile and ask the barista nicely for his favorite cup of coffee. More often than not — when life got busy, Lana was the first person he canceled on.
To be fair, most of us do this. We do this because we know that our partners will forgive us. So, with our words, we say, “You deserve the best of me” but with our actions, we say, “You can have what’s left of me.”
Lana’s current boyfriend, Mike, is the complete opposite. Whenever he has a looming deadline at work, he makes it a point to give her his presence and attention. Even if he only has 15 minutes to spare, he will use it to tell her how much he loves and appreciates her. He always tries his best to organize their plans at a time when he can be most present and she is always the person that he cancels on last.
Why this is so powerful
This is so powerful because it is so easy for us to do the opposite. The effects of giving “what’s left of you” are so small that you don’t realize it until ten years later when your relationship consists of nothing more than chores and obligations and is completely devoid of joy and passion. Saving the best for your partner requires conscious intention but the reward is a relationship that grows every day. Lana learned that fifteen minutes with 100% of someone is worth more than a year with 1% of someone.
3. They care about future you.
Lana has always wanted to be a writer but her traditional Indian parents had viewed her dreams as impractical. So, she had thrown all her energy into becoming a lawyer instead.
When she started dating Mike, she had shared her dreams of writing a book and expected the usual “Oh, that’s nice,” that most of her boyfriends had said. Instead, Mike had suggested that they take a writing course together. Mike had zero interest in becoming a writer but he wanted to help Lana start her journey.
Over the course of their relationship, she would spend countless hours with him discussing titles, the color of the images, or the specific wording of different paragraphs. For her birthday, Mike had paid for an illustrator to create the cover image for her book which was the final catalyst that she needed to finally publish it.
When Lana asked Mike why he had poured so much time into helping her become a writer, Mike had said, “I want to make sure you’re still happy in ten years. Things that are important to your future are important to me.”
Why this is powerful
Anyone who cares about future you sees a future with you. Because Mike sees himself in Lana’s future, her future happiness became important to him. So, he was willing to invest in things that would only come to fruition after years of effort. As a result of that, Lana experienced exponential growth as a writer — the kind of growth that was only possible because of Mike’s long-term commitment to her dreams.
4. They keep score (and it always comes out in your favor).
Lana has always been an extremely giving person. In her relationship with Ryan, she would cook, clean, and pay for things because she genuinely enjoyed doing it. Ryan was appreciative in the beginning but after a while, he began to expect it. Worse still, he would take her for fancy dinners and make sure to remind her when it was her turn to pay. Though she had always loved doing things for Ryan, she felt that she had to stop because she didn’t want to continue being taken for granted.
Lana soon found out that Mike also keeps score, except it always came out in her favor. He would insist on doing the dishes because she had done it the last two nights even though he had also vacuumed the apartment, taken out the trash, and done the dishes every other night that week. With Mike, she felt that she could be her usual giving self because her kindness was always rewarded with more kindness.
Why this is so powerful
In many relationships, a disproportionate giving dynamic is established early on that leads to one partner taking the other for granted. Another scenario is the tit-for-tat, in which both partners are actively keeping score and will do no more than the other person. Both will ultimately end in resentment. But if both partners focus on giving, the acts of kindness only continue to exponentially increase.
5. They show you with their actions, not their words.
Lana had initially fallen for Ryan because he would always say such wonderful and thoughtful things to her all day.
“I can’t wait to give you a massage soon and help you relax,” he would text her during the day. The problem was, soon never came. As he continued to make promises constantly about small and big things, Lana came to realize that Ryan wanted the acknowledgment for his intention to give without actually doing any of the giving.
Mike on the other hand rarely promises acts of affection ahead of time. Instead of saying he would like to give her a massage, he just gives her one. While he also tells her often that he loves her, his actions always lead the way. He doesn’t say, “I would like to soon,” he says, “I am going to now,” and does it.
Why this is powerful
To paraphrase New York Times bestselling author and dating expert Matthew Hussey — relationships are like building castles.
Having chemistry with someone is like finding a great plot of land that you can build a castle on — it’s a good start and it has potential. But the quality of the castle that gets built relies on the person you are building it with. Do they show up every day? Do they pay attention to the details? Are they willing to do the hard work to lay strong foundations? More importantly, no castle will get built unless both people show up every day and lay brick after brick.
Yes, words have potential but no relationship actually gets built if no action is taken.
For the longest time and even when she was deeply unhappy, Lana had a really hard time breaking up with Ryan. It was because Ryan always did all the things he was supposed to do. He would buy her flowers and fancy jewelry on Valentine’s day. He would share often on Instagram how much he loved her. He would take her on expensive vacations on her birthday.
What Lana came to realize later was that it was far more important to judge someone by the things they did that they weren’t expected to do. Mike did not have to tell her to wake him up when she was anxious, or take a writing course with her, or do all the household chores, or give her a massage every day. Nobody would say he was a bad boyfriend if he didn’t do any of those things. But he did them anyway.
Ryan’s actions were grand and public while Mike’s actions were smaller and constant. But the most important difference is that Ryan did everything because he was supposed to while Mike did everything because he wanted to. That is exactly what makes those acts of love so powerful —they were born from love and not expectations.
At the end of the day, the biggest turning point for Lana was re-framing her understanding of what true acts of love looked like — to stop looking for the grand gestures and see the subtle and more meaningful signs.
Why was it so important?
It was important because it helped her understand what she really deserved. And as Steve Chbosky puts it:
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
So, believe that you deserve better than what Hollywood is selling you. Believe that you deserve someone who consistently shows up for you in all the small ways every single day.