The Sliding Door to Emotional Connection in Relationships

When a couple sits in my office and tells me why they are seeking counseling, I usually hear a litany of complaints and accusations—all describing incidents when each felt dismissed, attacked, and criticized.   

But the issues that a couple complains about are often not really the problem.  The complaints are often symptomatic of something else:  the lack of emotional connection, or as John Gottman refers to it: a deficit in attunement. (See Gottman’s latest book, What Makes Love Last?)

Two puzzle pieces, each with half of a heart, being put together with a pair of hands.

Emotional Connection in Relationships

What is attunement?  It is the desire and ability to understand and respect each other’s inner world.  It’s the feeling of being there for each other. When that dynamic is missing, trust begins to erode and couples become more distant and angry.  

To quote John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail

In a committed relationship, partners constantly ask each other in words and deeds for support and understanding. In research parlance, I refer to such requests as bids‘. They can be as simple as Could you get me a beer?’ or as profound as ‘I need you,’ after a scary medical diagnosis. Not all bids are obvious. Many of them get missed, ignored, or misinterpreted.  One partner may say, ‘I love you,’ expecting the other to turn around and initiate a hug.  But the partner, distracted and just half-listening, says, ‘I know you do.’ 

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Sliding Door Moments

Every bid made in a relationship initiates what Gottman calls a sliding door moment.  When one partner expresses a need for connection, the other’s response is either to slide open a door and walk through or keep it shut, be defensive, and turn away. Imagine that Henry settles into his favorite chair to watch a movie. His wife, Cindy, wanders over, gazes at the screen, and sighs, “Wow—Paris always looks so gorgeous in movies!”. 

There is a huge catalog of reactions Henry might have to his wife’s wistful comment.  He could slide the door open by saying something like, “I hope someday we get to go there.”  Or he could turn away by offering a grouchy grunt or saying, “Shhhh, I’m trying to watch!.”  A response that doesn’t demonstrate interest and connection, slides the door shut. 

Gottman: All long-term relationships are riddled with sliding door moments that end poorly.  The partner may be tired, or annoyed or just focused elsewhere. Often, we don’t think our response, or lack of one, to such a trivial event will matter much.

It’s true that turning away from a minor bid is not going to send a relationship hurtling into the abyss.  But an abundance of unhappy endings to these interactions does precipitate danger.  Over time, one partner or both begin to wonder: “Do I come first, or does someone or something else matter more?  Is my partner selfish?  Can I risk continuing to trust?”  (Gottman, What Makes Love Last, p.32)

Signs of Trouble…and What to Do.

Unfortunately, when a partner is beginning to ask herself/himself these questions, he or she may begin to withdraw or angrily criticize the other, which will only make things worse, of course. When one is feeling lonely or not attuned to, the best thing to do is to express your needs in an open, non-apologetic, non-judgmental way.  And the best response is to slide the door open by listening and seeking to understand your partner’s complaint—your partner’s need. Only in this manner will emotional connection in relationships be felt and trust sustained.

And remember: A good marriage begins when you marry the one you love and blossoms when you love the one you married.

Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Picture of Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.