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Thinking About Improving Your Relationship? It's NOT the Thought that Counts

Knowing when and to whom these soothing powers are available can actually improve all of your relationships, romantic or otherwise.
01/18/2016 12:54pm ET | Updated January 18, 2017
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South Africa, Cape Town, Rear view of young couple sitting at beach

"It's the thought that counts." That's how the saying goes. You usually hear the expression to excuse a misfire between a giver and a receiver of something--a gift, an invitation, or even a compliment. This sentiment is supposed to serve as a balm for the social misfire and refocus attention on the good intentions rather than the inadvertent blunder.

But there are limits to when this sentiment applies, and only certain folks get to extend or claim the grace that it affords. Knowing when and to whom these soothing powers are available can actually improve all of your relationships, romantic or otherwise.

Rule #1: You have to actually DO something, rather than simply think about doing it.

I know, I know. It's confusing because the adage says it's the "thought" that counts, not the "act" or "deed." Maybe an example will help clarify things.

Example: You heard the Cure was coming to town. You happen to know that the Cure was your boyfriend's favorite band from his high school glory days. You thought about surprising him with tickets but you never got around to following through.

Maybe it was a money-thing, maybe it was a time-thing. Either way, it doesn't matter. You don't get any credit for the thought. It doesn't even matter if you tell him you thought about it. In fact, you'd be better off not mentioning it. You had a thoughtful idea, but it wasn't important enough to you to execute it. You don't get any points for that.

Rule #2: If you did do something but it didn't come off well, you had to have no reasonable way of knowing that it would be a misfire.

If you had no reasonable way of knowing that your nice gesture would not be well-received, you still get the "thoughtful" points.

Example: Your new coworker, Sasha, volunteered to stay late one evening to help you complete your project and meet a deadline. To thank her, you buy her a Starbucks gift card. Unbeknownst to you, Sasha's husband, Ben, owns a local coffee shop, Howya Bean, whose main competition is corporate coffee shops like Starbucks. As far as Sasha and Ben are concerned, Starbucks is the devil.

In that situation, the adage applies to you. You thought about doing something nice and you followed through on your idea. The fact that it didn't turn out to be the right fit for the recipient isn't on you. You still get the points, so don't beat yourself up.

Rule #3: If you should have known that it would have been a misfire but you nevertheless didn't clue in, the recipient can still grant you dispensation from the faux pas if she is so inclined. (And in that case, you might well consider giving her an additional gift.)

Example: Assume the same facts in the example above with the following variation: Everyone else at work knew that Sasha's husband owned a local coffee shop. In fact, week before last, Sasha had brought coupons to Howya Bean and handed them out to everyone at work. (And yes, you were there that day.)

Not being tuned in to a significant detail about someone you work with doesn't put you in the best light. In this situation, Sasha can give you a pass by choosing to focus on the sentiment behind the Starbucks card, rather than slight on the face of it. After all, the gift may expose you for being overextended or self-absorbed, but it also makes obvious that you were trying to be thoughtful.

In the final analysis, the saying "It's the thought that counts" and the rules that govern its application fall under the umbrella of the bigger edict to "Just be nice." Follow these rules and watch your relationships perk up. Ignore them and don't be surprised when your personal life feels like a grind.