You’re walking down the street decompressing after yet another tense argument with your loving but stubborn partner, and on the sidewalk you pass your favorite neighbors–that old couple, wrinkly but smiley, who still appear to actually enjoy one another’s company after however many centuries they’ve been together. You can’t help but ask yourself “what are they doing that we’re not?”
Bids for Connection
Part of what they’re doing is turning towards each other’s bids at least 86% of the time and making regular deposits in their emotional bank accounts.
A bid for connection is the most fundamental particle of human relationships. Coined by superhero relationship psychologist John Gottman, a bid is any attempt to connect. It could be as obvious as a verbal “hi, how are you?” or as simple as a smile or a pat on the shoulder when walking by your partner. It could even be as subtle as a barely audible exasperated sigh when walking into a room. Every human interaction is made up of a collection of bids and responses.
Response #1: Turning Towards
So what does it mean to turn towards a bid? There are three ways to respond to bids, and turning towards is the most constructive way. Turning towards someone’s bid means that you engage with them in a way that affirms their desire for connection.
If your co-worker walks into the break room and says “I’m so tired today,” turning towards their bid means that you reply in a way that shows them that you’re listening. For example, it could mean making eye contact and saying “aww, you should get some rest” or “why’s that?”
In his “love lab” where he studies couples intensively, Gottman has observed that couples who stay together turn towards each other’s bids an average of 86% of the time, whereas couples who eventually get divorced only average 33%. So what are the other ways to respond to bids, and why is it that micro-interactions that can appear so small can be so destructive to a relationship?
Response #2: Turning Against
The second way to respond to a bid is called ‘turning against.’ In other words, you respond aggressively. If your partner texts you and asks “hey, do you feel like Indian food tonight?” and you write back “NO!! YOU KNOW HOW GASSY THAT DAHL MAKES ME. I TOLD YOU TEN TIMES TO STOP COOKING INDIAN FOOD!” in all caps, it’s pretty safe to say their stomach is going to be the one in knots after this exchange.
Turning against is not always so pronounced, though. It can also come in the form of smaller micro-aggressions. For example, let’s say your partner asks you to do the dishes, and you oblige…but you make sure they see you roll your eyes in spite as you get up reluctantly. This is also turning against.
Response #3: Turning Away
Turning away, on the other hand, is the third way to respond. Turning away entails responding either minimally or not at all. If your fiancé comes into the bedroom where you’re reading an engrossing murder mystery before bed and says “Hey honey!” clearly wanting to connect, you might turn away by saying “hey” in an unenthused tone without looking up from your book. You are responding, but with the minimum possible effort and in a way that shows that you are not interested in continuing the interaction.
If you had to guess, what would you think to be more harmful to relationships: turning away or turning against?
Somewhat surprisingly, turning away is actually more destructive than turning against. Even though responding aggressively can be destructive, it at least shows your partner that you care enough to engage, albeit not in a very kind way. Turning away, on the other hand, sends the message that you don’t care enough to even engage at all. Of course, it’s always best to respond by turning towards!
That said, it’s not possible to turn towards bids all the time. Turning towards bids 100% of the time might actually be harmful if done wrong because it could imply consistently putting your own needs aside. But what about when we are otherwise occupied and really cannot or do not want to put it aside, but our partner is reaching out for connection and we also don’t want them to feel neglected?
One way to turn towards their bid without compromising your own needs is to voice precisely that feeling. You could tell them “Hey, I love you and I want to connect with you, too, and I also had a long day and I’m really enjoying this murder mystery right now. Reading is helping me to recharge. But could we have breakfast together tomorrow?”
Bids and Emotions and Prenups…Oh My!
Bids for connection and how we respond to them become particularly relevant when it comes time to talk about a prenup. One partner bringing up the need for a prenup is an all-too-common example of a bid many people instinctively respond to by turning against. If you feel defensive or slighted when this conversation arises, take a moment to pause and ask yourself how you can turn towards their bid while still honoring yourself.
That could mean voicing your discomfort in a calm, non-accusatory way, then asking for more details on why they want a prenup and whether it means they doubt the sustainability of your relationship. After all, there are many more reasons why one might want a prenup than just relationship doubts. If you turn towards this particularly tricky bid instead of turning against, you give yourself the opportunity to be surprised and your partner the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment while honoring their own needs.
The Emotional Bank Account
A lot of turned-towards bids add up to lots of positive interactions. This is where the emotional bank account comes into play. Think of it like a joint account whose capital, instead of money, is positive interactions. Every positive interaction you have together as a couple represents a deposit in the emotional bank account.
Conversely, every negative interaction serves as a withdrawal from the account. As you have more and more positive interactions, the account grows and grows and your relationship becomes stronger…while frequent arguing can eventually lead to complete depletion of the emotional bank account if there haven’t been enough positive interactions to offset it.
When the account is depleted or running low, what happens is that you become suspicious of one another’s motives and less and less likely to respond to conflict in a constructive way. Soon, you can see the flaws in one another front and center, and you might no longer notice what you love about each other. Any argument will escalate quickly and be difficult to resolve, and the damage will be even more difficult to repair.
You know how it’s those little, insignificant-seeming purchases that add up and make you suddenly realize you can’t afford that vacation you’ve been planning, after all? Those daily coffees, the shortbread cookies when you walk by the new bakery down the street, and those movies rented from Prime Video? They’re insidious; each small, unnecessary purchase individually seems like a mere drop in the bucket. Added up, though, they’re quite substantial.
Your emotional bank account works in much the same way. Those small, everyday positive interactions add up substantially over time, strengthening your connection and fortifying your relationship against what can be damaging effects of conflict. But on the other hand, it is all too easy to develop a dynamic that involves constant low-level bickering or conversations peppered with barely discernible micro-aggressions. These will drain the balance in your emotional bank account just as insidiously as those unrestrained small purchases.
Prenups and the Emotional Bank Account
As mentioned above, the conversation about a potential prenup and its details can bring up a lot of fear and doubt for many couples. Suppose the emotional bank account is already running low. In that case, the prenup conversation is not likely to go smoothly and could even do significant damage to the relationship. Since an emotional bank account without much capital in it means that partners are likely to suspect each other’s motives, the partner who brings up the prenup could be seen as uncommitted or miserly.
With plenty of emotional capital in that bank account, however, the conversation will go in a more positive direction. Partners are more likely to see this conversation as another step on their journey towards marriage and will be better able to navigate it successfully, even if there are some disagreements along the way.
Turning towards bids for connection whenever you can and paying close attention to the balance in that emotional bank account will help to strengthen your relationship and increase its longevity. And who knows? Maybe one day, you’ll be part of that old couple that others look up to.
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