A touch on the shoulder. Asking “How was work?” Telling someone, “You’d never guess what happened to me and the kids today!” These are all quotidian occurrences in a relationship, part of the rhythms of couple-hood. But each is an example of something very important: a bid for connection. And the act of turning towards, not away from, a partner’s bids is a crucial aspect of a happy marriage.
“The more of them that partners notice and respond to, the more a couple feels connected to one another,” says Cheri Timko, a relationship coach and Gottman Certified Therapist. “These small moments form the culture of the relationship and determine whether it feels safe to each person.”
According to researcher and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, one way to determine the health of a relationship is to identify how members respond to bids for connection. In fact, according to research from Dr. Gottman, couples that stayed together longer than six years — often the breaking point for marriages — turned towards each other 86% of the time, while those that divorced did so an average of 33% of the time.
In its simplest form, a bid for connection is a request from your partner for your attention, says Timko. They can be conversation starters (“Tell me about your day”; “Did you hear what happened in the news?”) or simple gestures of affection (reaching out to hold hands; moving over to snuggle on the couch)
When one partner offers a bid to the other, the recipient has three choices of how to respond: turning toward, turning away from, or turning against their partner, notes Timko. Turning toward means they acknowledge what their partner did or said and engage with them. Turning away means they ignore it, either intentionally or absent-mindedly.
While they may seem unimportant, these small interactions are incredibly important. “They may be an indicator of our unspoken feelings,” says Timko. “In fact, our partners usually assume that our responses to these bids for connection reveal how we are thinking about them, whether it is true or not.”
Over time, she says, we judge health of the relationship based on how well our partner is attuned to look for these bids and how positively they respond to them.
Understanding the Bid
Bids for connection can be easy to ignore. Stress and the general pace of life can easily cause one partner to ignore bids or not even realize their importance.
“Sometimes partners innocently don’t recognize when a bid of connection is being made,” says Meagan Prost, a licensed professional counselor and owner of the Center for Heart Intelligence. “In these instances, there can be an opportunity for a couple to share the ways they try to connect with their partners.”
If you want to avoid the problem of turning away from your partner, you need to start by paying attention and learning the cues that let you know when your partner is making a bid.
Part of this requires identifying the things that get in the way. Phones. Games. That work email we feel the need to answer right now. All the little things that take us away can wait while we respond to a bid.
Another common issue is that one partner, no matter how subtle they are in their request, may assume that their partner knows them well enough to immediately identify when they want to connect. But this may not be the case. Mind reading is for X-Men characters, not marriages.
If you’re the one making a bid and your partner isn’t picking up on the cues, it’s okay to say, “I’m making a bid for connection.” Hell, sometimes it’s better to be up front until your partner starts to learn what your bids are rather than hoping he or she will pick up on them on their own. As you grow more in tune, it will become easier to see the subtext of what’s being said.
“The good news is that we don’t have to catch all of them in order to have a good relationship,” says Timko. “We just need to catch enough so that we make our partner feel important and prioritized.”
And isn’t that how we all want them to feel anyway?
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