Pay attention to your spouse’s ‘bids’
Dr. John Gottman has been researching relationships for over 40 years. It started in the 1960s, when he and other social scientists were trying to make sense of the skyrocketing divorce rate during that decade. His research on how relationships could be repaired after conflict led him to realize that what was most important was how couples maintained their friendship, intimacy and emotional connection in their everyday lives together.
To further his research, in 1986 Gottman and his colleagues built an apartment laboratory at the University of Washington that was dubbed the “Love Lab.”
A few years later, he conducted a study with 130 newlywed couples, inviting them to spend the day at another laboratory disguised as a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. The purpose of the experiment was to observe the couples’ ordinary interactions in a relaxed setting, including nuances in facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication. In an article called “Masters of Love” posted at theatlantic.com, Emily Esfahani Smith describes what Gottmann and his colleagues discovered.
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection — what Gottman calls ‘bids.’ For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: He’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird. The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either ‘turning toward’ or ‘turning away’ from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation, and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that. People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, ‘Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.’”
Gottman and his colleagues followed up with these couples six years later. Couples who were divorced by then had turned toward each other on average 33 percent of the time, meaning that only three out of 10 of their bids for emotional connection were met, and that pattern took its toll as the years went by. In contrast, the couples who were still married after six years had turned toward each other’s bids 87 percent of the time. As newlyweds, nine out of 10 times they had met their spouse’s need for emotional connection, and that habit made all the difference in their relationship.
Gottman’s research points to a crucial dynamic in marriage in which we repeatedly seek to make connections with our spouse in the ordinary, everyday moments of our life together. As couples, we continuously make “bids” to each other, attempting to solicit some kind of affirmation, attention or affection from our spouse. Turning towards our spouse starts with becoming aware of the bid in the first place and paying attention to what he or she is seeking. A partner who turns toward may verbally acknowledge the other’s statement, nod in agreement, make eye contact, touch the other’s hand or respond positively in any number of ways. Every time that we turn towards our partner’s bids, we are making a deposit in what Gottman calls our emotional bank account as a couple, little by little building up the positive feeling between us and the love that is experienced and expressed moment by moment in marriage. Gottman has found that couples in long-lasting, highly satisfying marriages have a ratio of five positive interactions (deposits) for every one negative interaction (withdrawals). In other words, they have far more deposits than withdrawals in their emotional bank account and plenty of reserves to draw upon when conflict occurs, as is does in every relationship. According to Gottman, when you turn towards your spouse’s bid, he or she hears the following:
• I’m interested in you.
• I hear you.
• I understand you (or would like to).
• I’m on your side.
• I’d like to help you (whether I can or not).
• I’d like to be with you (whether I can or not).
• I accept you (even if I don’t accept all your behavior)
Gottman explains that even though the reasons for failed connection are often due to not paying sufficient attention to the other person, rather than any kind of animosity towards him or her, the fact is that regularly missing our partner’s bids adds up over time and eats away at the relationship. “It turns out that trust is built in very small moments,” he points out, “because in every interaction there is a possibility of connection with a partner, or turning away.” When a spouse does not respond in a positive way to our bids for emotional connection, what happens is that we begin to lose trust in them.
So whether we are preparing for marriage or have been married for many years, let’s make a commitment to become more aware of our partner’s bids and to turn towards him or her as often as possible. As a recent Marriage Minute from the Gottman Institute put it: “Love is cultivated during the grind of everyday life. Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice. We are distracted by our books, phones, laptops and televisions. For many couples, just realizing that they shouldn’t take their everyday interactions for granted makes an enormous difference in their relationship.”
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