I believe the bottom line of any loving relationship is “being present.” What does that mean? It means being responsive when your partner is reaching out to you, or as John Gottman puts it, “making a bid for connection.” and feeling that you are responding in an attentive, respectful, interested manner–i.e. “being present.” The ground of any strong relationship is the emotional connection one feels with his/her partner. When that connection is missing, couples will inevitably become distant or start arguing about issues that don’t really matter.
In every relationship, couples periodically make what Dr. Gottman calls “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, or support. Bids can be as insignificant as “please turn down the heat” to as significant as helping a partner care for a sick child.
In these moments, we have a choice to turn toward our partner or away from them. If we turn toward them, we build trust and emotional connection
Dr. Gottman often jokes that “everything positive you do in your relationship is foreplay.” Foreplay happens in the grocery store when your partner asks, “We have milk?” and you respond, “I’m not sure. I’ll grab some,” rather than shrugging your shoulder apathetically.
In a six-year study of newlyweds, Dr. Gottman found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids 86% of the time in his lab, while those who divorced turned towards each other only 3% of the time.
The number one thing couples fight about is not money or in-laws, or sex. There are exceptions, of course, but most arguments in relationships are about a failure to connect emotionally.
Sometimes we do not recognize when our partner is making a bid for connection because it’s wrapped in criticism, or so it seems. We react to their negativity and miss the opportunity to connect.
For example, Chris wants Lisa to come to bed but she is returning her work email. His bid is “Please come to bed with me” but comes out as “You’re on email now? You had all evening!”
If Lisa focuses on his plea and not his tone, she has the opportunity to respond positively: “Good point. I’ll be right there.” So before you reply defensively to your partner, pause for a moment and search for the bid beneath their harsh words. Then focus on the bid, not the delivery. If you find it difficult not to react defensively, take five really deep breaths. Then ask your partner. “What do you need right now from me?”
If wrapping bids in criticism is a habit in your relationship, work on softening your start-up.