It’s not big, blow out fights that wreck a marriage. It’s how we treat each other day to day. And that’s why happy couples sweat the small stuff!
I like to run a series on the Wednesdays of each month so that we can explore one topic in more detail. And this month we’re talking about how to feel emotionally close and how each of you can feel as if your emotional needs are met.
For the last two weeks–this Wednesday and next Wednesday–we’re going to explore what it means that happy couples sweat the small stuff. Essentially what I’m talking about is that happy couples do two things: they pay attention to the little things in marriage; and they deal with stuff while it’s still little, rather than letting it blow up. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that they make a big deal out of every little thing. Only that they express what they’re feeling and they ask for what they want when it’s still a little issue. And that’s important!
I want to take today, though, to explore in more detail something I talked about in a podcast a while ago–how happy couples respond to “bids for connection.” John Gottman, who is an awesome marriage researcher who has analyzed the way that couples act towards each other, the way they use body language, and so much more, is able to predict with 90%+ accuracy how a couple will fare in the next 5 years after watching their interactions for just a short time. And one of the things that he talks about at length is how couples respond to these tiny “bids for connection” throughout the day.
Gottman was the one who first talked about how each marriage has an emotional bank account, which you feed by showing your partner that you care about them and that you love them. If you’re going to make a “withdrawal”–say by bringing up an issue you’re not happy about; being gone for extended periods of time; or having one of your inevitable bad days, then it’s important to have a high balance in that bank account already.
Next week we’re going to talk about the withdrawals side of the equation–how to bring up small things that you’re unhappy about. But today I want to talk about how to make deposits into the bank account, and make your spouse feel emotionally connected.
Here’s what’s important:
In healthy marriages, the ratio of how people respond to these bids is 5:1. So for each negative response, or lack of response, there are 5 positive ones.
In unhappy marriages, the ratio is 1:1. That means that in unhappy marriages, there are still many, many healthy bids for connection. But in order to feel emotionally close and safe, that ratio must be more than 1:1. It’s not enough to make it even. You have to really show your spouse that you care!
And how do you do that?
It’s really quite simple.
Turn towards each other instead of away from each other.
Recognize Bids for Connection
A bid for connection is any time your spouse does something which signals that they’d like to engage in some way or that they’re reaching out to you. Here’s what bids may look like:
- Your spouse says something, sighs, or makes some gesture revealing how they’re feeling.
- Your spouse brings you a coffee or a glass of water or does some small thing for you.
- Your spouse enters the room where you’re sitting.
- Your spouse smiles at you.
- Your spouse asks you for something.
- Your spouse touches you.
In order to respond to these bids, though, we have to recognize them–which means that we can’t be so much in our own world that we ignore our spouse. You have to actively pay attention to one another. In fact, actively paying attention is one of the big things that separates marriage masters from marriage disasters (Gottman’s terms, not mine, but I love them!).
One example Gottman used: Your husband is reading an email, and he sighs. That’s a bid for connection! He’s revealed to you something that he’s feeling. So what can you do?
Respond Positively to Bids for Connection
Acknowledge what he revealed and show that you care. You could say something like this:
- “That sounds bad! Did something happen?”
- “Oh, oh. What’s wrong?”
- “Can I help?”
Now, of course, simply acknowledging isn’t enough. You have to actually care. If you said something like, “What is it now?“, that’s not a positive interaction!
Or here’s another bid. You’re watching Netflix, and your spouse places a cup of coffee beside you. Smile, say “thank you”, look at them full on the face. Or, even better, get up, give them a kiss, and then you can go back to your show. That way you communicate, “I know you did something nice for me and I appreciate it.”
What would happen, on the other hand, if you did nothing? Your spouse brings you coffee, and you don’t even look up. How will your spouse feel? Will they do it again? Will they feel valued? Or will they feel dismissed and ignored?
Or how about this bid: You’re making dinner and you hear your husband come in the door. That can be a bid for connection, too! Do you walk to the door and greet your spouse, or do you keep doing what you’re doing and ignore your spouse? (This is one I’m working on! It really matters to Keith that I greet him when he comes home, but sometimes I get engrossed in chopping something and I wait for him to enter the kitchen. It’s so much better if we can meet halfway!).
Or how about this one: Your spouse is sitting beside you and he takes your hand. Do you smile at him, continue to hold his hand, or lean towards him? Or do you lean away or take your hand away?
Turn a Negative Response into a Positive One
What if your spouse gives a bid for connection and you don’t feel that you can give them what they want right now? What if, for instance, your spouse says something like, “Hon, I’d love to do something together tonight. What do you think?” And you’re staring down a pile of paperwork you need to get done before work tomorrow, or you’re just exhausted, or something else is preventing you from engaging with your spouse.
Then turn this negative thing into something positive.
“I truly wish I could. I love doing X with you! I just can’t tonight. But can we put it on the calendar for Tuesday?”
You’ve now communicated, “I do want to spend time with you. I do value you. I just can’t right now.”
Sometimes the negative cycle with bids for connection begins because we miss the significance of what our spouse is doing, or we think the bid is a criticism, rather than a cry for help. For instance, if your spouse says something like,
“I’m so tired. There’s no way I can get everything done I’m supposed to get done. I don’t even know if I can make it to Tommy’s game on Friday!”
You can interpret this to mean that your spouse is trying to get out of an important parenting duty, or you could see that your spouse is frustrated and hoping that you can help him destress.
“That’s really rough. Tell me all the things you need to do and let me see if I can help.” Or you could say, “Why don’t you just take 15 minutes right now and do nothing. I’ll get you a cup of coffee. You look so overwhelmed; just take a minute to yourself.” Or you could try, “It’s been like this before, and you’ve always gotten through it. I know you’ll get through it again. When do you think it will lighten up? Let’s figure that out!”
The key in sweating the small stuff: You just want to show your spouse that you care, and that they matter to you.
In fact, Gottman found that these small things are far more important in a marriage than any big romantic gestures. In his book The Relationship Cure, Gottman wrote:
“Maybe it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversations that matters. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether couples agree or disagree. Maybe the important thing is how these people pay attention to each other, no matter what they’re talking about or doing.”
So pay attention to the small things, and respond to bids for connection! I really think if more spouses did that–showed that they cared, even in the very little things–then people would feel valued, connected, and loved. And that helps people feel close!