Bidding for Greater Emotional Connection

Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Do you often find your intimate partner to be too busy to be emotionally available to you?   Do you have trouble getting him/her to really listen to you?  To open up to you?  To trust you?  To share his/her true feelings with you?  Do you get angry because your needs are neglected—or you don’t get the emotional support you need?  Do you often feel that your intimate partner isn’t on your side?  How would your partner answer the above questions?

If your answers to any of the above questions are “yes,” it’s likely that your relationship has failed to master the “bid”—the fundamental unit of emotional communication and connection in a relationship.  A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch—any expression that says “I want to feel connected to you.”   A response to a bid is just that—a positive or negative answer to somebody’s request for emotional connection.  Such bids occur in dozens of ordinary day-to-day exchanges between intimate partners.

And what happens when we habitually fail to respond positively to one another’s bids for emotional connection?  Such failure is rarely malicious or mean-spirited.  More often we’re simply unaware of or insensitive to other’s bids for our attention.  Still, when such mindlessness becomes habitual, the connection and the closeness in a relationship can be destroyed.

People typically respond to one another’s bids for connection in one of three ways:

  1. Turning toward.  To “turn toward” one another means to react in a positive way to another’s bids for emotional connection.  One person makes a funny comment, for example, and the other person laughs.  A man points to an impressive car as it passes by, and his friend nods as if to say “I agree.  That’s quite a car.”  A father asks his son to pass the ketchup, and his son does so in a kind, accommodating way.  When people consistently turn toward one another’s bids for connection,  they develop stable, long-lasting relationships rich in good feelings for one another, that allow them to stay connected emotionally
  2.  Turning against.  People who turn against one another’s bids for connection might be described as belligerent or argumentative.  For example, if a man fantasized about owning a passing sports car, his girlfriend might reply “On your salary?  Dream on!”  This pattern of hostility is linked to being emotionally distant from one another and having a less supportive relationship.
  3.  Turning away.  This pattern of relating generally involves ignoring another’s bid for connection, or acting preoccupied.  A person in these instances might point to that impressive sports car, but his friend wouldn’t bother to look up.  Or he might look up and say something unrelated such as “What time do you have?”   Consistently turning away from one another’s bids is also destructive for relationships.

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

Source:  The Relationship Cure by John Gottman (Crown)

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