Keeping Love Alive One Moment at a TimeJun 22, 2022
One of the things that sets newly weds apart from couples who have been married for a while is how they respond to a “bid for connection” from their partner. Dr. John Gottman, the renowned marriage expert explains that a bid for connection is any small or big gesture made by one spouse to get the attention or affection of the other.
Bids for connection are small everyday occurrences like calling your spouse just to check in during the day, commenting on something you read or heard, asking for an opinion or making an affectionate gesture.
Spouses make these bids for connection many many times throughout the day. Bids can be in the form of questions or everyday comments such as “how do I look”, “did you see that?”, “what did you think of the show”, “it is cold today”. They can also be in the form of a gesture, a touch or simply looking at the other for a response.
In the beginning, it is very easy
Responding positively to bids for connection comes naturally when we first get together with our spouse. The newness of the relationship means that we automatically pay attention to things that our partner says and does. When our spouse asks what we thought of something, we view this as an invitation to engage with them and are happy to share our thoughts and feelings.
More challenging as time goes on
As time goes on and we become more familiar with each other, it can sometimes become more challenging. We may begin to believe that we already know what they are going to say or do, or we may be distracted and wrapped up in our own thoughts. We sometimes answer with a word, or not at all. Even worse, we may become annoyed at them for disturbing whatever we may be doing at that time.
Small but significant moments
These everyday interactions that we have may appear trivial and insignificant to people outside the relationship. To the couple themselves, how their partner responds to their bids for attention and connection is vitally important to how loving and loved they feel in the relationship. These micro connections between couples are highly predictive of the long-term health of the relationship. They are so important, in fact, that Dr. Gottman and his fellow researchers can predict the success or failure of marriages with amazing accuracy by counting the number of bids offered and accepted between a couple over a regular dinner.
A key to long term relationship happiness
Dr. Gottman and his colleagues emphasize that couples that remain happy over the long term continue to make and respond to several bids over the course of a day. When one spouse in a healthy couple makes a bid for connection, the other spouse ‘turns towards’ their partner in a responsive way. In unhealthy marriages, couples ‘turn away’ from their spouse more often than they turn towards.
In severely distressed relationships, couples do more than simple ignore the bid. In unhappy or conflictual relationships, people can ‘turn against’ the person making the bid, psychologically punishing them for requesting a response.
In Dr. Gottman’s many research studies, turning towards appears to be a key factor in keeping marriages healthy and loving. He found that couples who remain married over the long haul turned towards one another 86% of the time compared to the couples who had decided to separate or divorce that turned towards each other only 33% of the time that their spouses requested connection in small ways.
Sweating the small stuff
So it appears that in order to maintain a healthy relationship over time, we need to become more intentional about paying attention to the little ways that our spouses are making bids for connection. Since bids for attention and connection can be really subtle, they are especially easy to miss if we are distracted, disengaged, stressed or upset. This is one area of life where we do need to “sweat the small stuff” – by valuing our spouses and giving them the gift of attention.
The bad news about bids for connection
So to summarize, here is the good and bad news about bids for connection:
Firstly, the bad news:
- Bids are very easy to miss if we are not paying attention. These gestures of reaching out emotionally are fleeting and not scheduled or premeditated.
- People don’t make the bids for attention very clearly. They often don’t articulate exactly what they need. The process of making bids is subtle and often unconscious. When the partner responds by turning away or against, it is difficult to articulate exactly what is going on. Unless both people recognize the concept of turning towards, they cannot say specifically what is wrong. They simply know that something is and that they are not fulfilled in the relationship
- If we ignore or turn against a bid for attention, it is unlikely that the other will rebid in the same way. Turning away or turning against bids for connection feels like micro injuries. When people keep getting injured in this way, they may respond by shutting down or emotionally distancing themselves from their spouse.
- No matter how much we try, we will miss some of these bids for connection. Happy couples however, can respond positively more than 80% of the time whereas couples who are in a distressed relationships miss most of these gestures of affection and connection and respond only about 30% of the time
- Modern life constantly keeps us in a state of distraction and so makes it rather challenging to pay attention to those that matter most. Many of us are more connected to our devices than to each other and this is a major challenge of the present age. We are all “alone together”. When we routinely “phub” our family members by snubbing them in favor of our smartphones. We are often sharing the same space but connected to those who are far away rather than to those who are with us. Studies show that it is emotional connection and not simply physical presence that provides relationship satisfaction, de-stressing and peace so it is not surprising that many couples feel the disconnection even though they love each other and are committed to the relationship.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Disconnection and emotional distance is not inevitable in a relationship.
The good news
1) It is simple to change.
Good relationships don’t need very much at all. It is not rocket science and anyone can do it. This is where we do need to sweat the small stuff because in relationships, the small things are the big things.
2) It does not take much. Turning towards leads to a cycle of positive connections and more turning towards. We don’t even need to be enthusiastic about it. It is not about Bollywood style romance. Simple sprinklings of genuine attention here and there throughout the week are all it takes to strengthen relationships. The simple act of sharing good news with someone, for example, is a powerful positivity practice that benefits both the one who’s telling the news and the one who’s hearing it. We can revitalize our relationships simply by sharing a joke, or talking about an interesting person we met or some experience we had at work or during the day. There is emerging research to suggest that such brief moments of shared positive emotions are what produce and keep love alive.
3) Turning towards may have a big impact on reducing conflict. Often when our emotional bank accounts are empty, conflict escalates and turning towards is a key practice to keeping a healthy balance in the emotional bank account.
Baby steps to connecting
So how can we begin to take these baby steps to keep love alive?
- Being intentional about unplugging from devices when with those who are the most important to us. The quality of interaction, research shows, goes down even when devices are within reach. Keeping them out of sight when we are with loved ones will free up our attention to that which matters most.
- We can be intentional about connecting at key times of the day. Greetings and leave takings. Morning and evening. Mealtimes. For a brief moment, we can stop what we are doing, get present and acknowledge our spouse. When we wake up in the morning, we can greet our spouse before we pick up our phone and the last thing at night, we can wish goodnight to our spouse after we have switched off our phone. In this way, we can create sacred time and sacred space for our relationship, free from digital distractions.
- We need to practice, practice and practice. This simple concept is easy to understand. We have tremendous power to create happiness and satisfaction in our relationships. It is not expensive or time consuming. The benefits of being intentional about recognizing and responding to bids on a daily basis, even when we don’t feel like it, are enormous. Through such intentionality, can we experience the joy of seeing the important relationships in our life through fresh, interested, curious eyes.
It is definitely worth the effort; wouldn’t you say?
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