Happy couples are those who are deeply intimate with each other. This means that they feel emotionally close, connected and valued. They respect and trust each other because they mutually value and appreciate each other.
They create intimacy by developing and nurturing a strong emotional connection, which requires mutual attunement, responsiveness, and engagement. This is done by putting forward bids for connection.
Bids for Connection
Relationship expert John Gottman considers a bid as a fundamental unit of emotional and sexual connection between two partners. In short, bids for connection are verbal or non-verbal attempts to connect with our partner.
Bids can be direct or indirect and each partner must communicate in a way that is understood by the other. Indirect communicators often don’t receive any responses if their parents are direct communicators as they often miss the bids. This requires an adjustment of both partners in the way they communicate with each other as this misattunement will otherwise cause a sense of emotional disconnection.
A non-verbal bid for connection, for example, would be kissing, stroking or massaging your partner. It may be trying to hold their hand, making eye contact, or hugging them when you come back home. On the other side, verbal bids for connection are sentences like the following:
Do you want to watch a film with me?
I feel like going to bed to cuddle.
Today is a good day to go for a walk.
Do you want to cook together?
Do you want to talk about it?
I saw a top today that I think you might like.
Our friends are going to the spa together. That sounds like a wonderful thing to do as a couple.
I miss having sex with you.
Whether we bid verbally or non-verbally, we always look for our partners to respond positively and engage with us. When two partners interact well, there is an effortless flow of interaction between them. This back and forth of interactions can be compared to a game of well-played tennis.
Positive responses, therefore, lead to a continuation of an interaction whereas negative or no responses lead to an abrupt ending of an interaction or conversation.
Responding to Bids of Connection
The way our partner responds to our bids for connection highly impacts on how safe and loved we perceive to feel with our partner.
In 1960, Winnicot suggested that children feel loved and secure when their parents respond positively the majority of the time. If this is not the case, children will develop an insecure attachment style. But attachment is not limited by age and therefore also applies to adults.
Gottman conducted research on couples to find out how negative responses to bids for connection impact on relationship satisfaction and relationship breakdown. The results confirmed that reciprocal bidding helps couples maintain an intimate relationship with each other whereas disregarding bids for connection led to divorce the vast majority of the time.
For example, soon-to-be-divorced men disregarded their partner’s bids for connection 89% of the time while soon-to-be-divorced women disregarded their partner’s bids for connection 50% of the time.
This stands in stark contrast to individuals in healthy relationships, in which the participating men disregarded their partner’s bids only 19% of the time and the women disregarded their partner’s bids only 14% of the time.
Additionally, Gottman found that healthy couples have more and longer interactions that serve to nourish and strengthen their emotional bond and trust in each other. Adding up all these positive and loving interactions over a whole year stand in stark contrast to the low numbers of unhappy couples heading for divorce.
Three Types of Responding
There are three ways in which we can respond to bids of connection. We can turn toward our partner and engage in a positive interaction. We can turn away from our partner by dismissing or ignoring their attempt to connect. Or we can turn against our partner by responding in a hostile and disconnecting manner to their bid of connection.
Turning toward means responding positively, being encouraging, interested and loving towards your partner. It can include touching, nodding, smiling, or making affirming statements like, “I understand you.” or “I am sorry you feel this way.” It can also include adjusting your behavior so that it is more considerate and loving.
Signs of turning away include avoiding eye contact, dismissing their bid, ignoring them, not looking up or responding at all. Turning away means not replying to a question they ask or a statement they make. It also includes walking away from them without acknowledging them.
Turn against is a more overt form of rejecting a bod of connection by acting angrily or aggressively. It includes glaring at your partner, making threatening gestures, being critical or condescending, making fun at their expense, being sarcastic or putting them down. Doing the opposite of what your partner has asked of you is also a form of turning against.
The Secret of Happy Relationships
Couples in healthy and happy relationships turn towards each other while relationship breakdown is characterized by a lack of turning towards each other and responding positively to bids of connection.
A lack of positive response to a bid of connection usually leads to a partner feeling rejected and unsupported in the relationship. Consequently, trust suffers and eventually our sense of emotional safety and intimacy decrease.
Drawing on Gottman’s research, we know that the secret to happy relationships is an expression of love, mutual respect, and goodwill in the form of bids for connection. This tells us that if we want to improve our relationship, we must attune better to our partner and respond more lovingly to our their bids for connection.
The more bids are received and responded to positively, the more happy experiences and wonderful memories we create together with our partner. As a result, our associations with our partner and our relationship will be positive and soothing, which benefits us greatly.
However, as our behaviors are an expression of our state of mind, it is important that we explore what we believe about our partner that evokes the feelings and behaviors we engage in. Remember that loving behaviors are natural expressions of a loving state of mind.
By Marlena Tillhon
Benu Lahiry is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco specializing in Couples Counseling Pacific Heights. Her work is especially helpful for people experiencing anxiety, depression, self-doubt, lack of motivation, and for couples with intimacy issues. She is experienced in many evidence-based therapy modalities, including attachment theory, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic principles, mindfulness practices, and solution-focused therapy. Her therapeutic style is best described as warm, direct, and collaborative.