The One Thing That Will Either Make or Break Your Relationship

Some would say I’m an expert on relationships. I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years and have written thirteen books, with a new one coming out next year. I’ve been married for 35 years. However, I’m constantly reminded that I still have a long way to go before I can say that I’m practicing what I teach my clients. The latest reminder came last night when my wife was upset with me because I had failed to enter the last check I wrote into the check register.

She was irritated because my failure meant extra work for her. If I had been listening to her, I would have realized that she was trying to connect with me, but I was tired and a made a cursory response, “Yeah, yeah, next time I’ll remember.” In my mind I was thinking, “Damn, woman, what’s the big deal? So you need to take a minute to copy a few numbers. Get off my back.” Defensiveness is a sure sign, I’ve gotten triggered, and I’m pushing Carlin away. I could see that she was still upset and I made a joking apology hoping I could just get us back on track so I could watch the baseball game in peace.

But I’ve come to see that it’s often not the “big problems” that sink relationships—Sexual problems, affairs and betrayals, money problems—but the day-to-day disconnections like these that are “no big deal,” but it turns out they can actually build up and become deal breakers that can pull a relationship apart.

Earlier today I was completing the bibliography for the new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best Is Still to Come, which will be out next year. One of the important works I wanted people to know about is by John Gottman, Ph.D., one of the most important researchers and clinicians in the field. In his book,What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayals, he shares forty years of research that demonstrates the importance of our emotional connection to our partner.

Are Our Bids for Emotional Connection Answered Positively or Negatively?

Take a moment to think about the importance of emotional connection between a child and parent. A baby cries and a father responds with attention and comfort. A little girl is disappointed when her basketball team loses and her mother listens to her story and gives her a hug of support. As parents we recognize the importance of hearing the request for connection that our children are constantly asking for, and responding positively. We may not always do it effectively, but we know it’s important. There are times we’re too tired, stressed, or preoccupied to connect deeply, but we know that our children need this kind of support to grow up to be confident, caring adults.

However, we often don’t recognize that the need for emotional connection between loving partners is just as important as the connection between a parent and a child. This is what Gottman’s research has demonstrated. We never outgrow our need to have our partner respond positively to what Gottman calls our “bids for connection.”

“In a committed relationship,” says Gottman, “partners constantly ask each other in words and deeds for support and understanding.” He says that these bids “can be as simple as ‘Could you get me a beer?’ or as profound as ‘I need you’ after a scary medical diagnosis.”

I’ve found two major problems with responding positively to these kinds of bids for connection.

Some seem so trivial we think they aren’t important. A request for a beer, may be met with a distracted, clunk, as she places the beer on the table on her way out the door. Or in the earlier case with the checkbook, I gave an irritated response of dismissal, since she should understand I have much more important things to do.

The more important bids, such as the need for support for a serious medical diagnosis may be missed because we are scared. We might be saying to ourselves, “I don’t even want to think about something happening to my wife. It scares the living hell out of me.” So, we cover our feelings and clunk an upbeat response. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it you’ll be just fine.”

Whatever, the reasons Gottman says that bids often get missed, ignored, or misinterpreted. “Every bid made in a relationship initiates what I call a sliding door moment,” says Gottman. “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 and turn away.”

There are three possible responses to these, seemingly simple, yet critically important sliding door moments:

  1. We can turn away.
  2. We can turn against.
  3. We can turn toward.

Here’s an illustration. Let’s say your partner pops her head into your room while you’re writing. She says, “I just had a thought about the new book case we bought.” Your response might be:

  • Turning Away: Shrug and change the subject. “Did you get the cereal I asked you to buy?”
  • Turning Against: “Don’t interrupt me. I’m busy.”
  • Turning Towards: “That’s great. I want to hear about it.”

How We Respond to Our Partner’s Bids for Connection Will Either Make or Break a Relationship

Embedded in the hundreds of interactions we have every day are sliding door moments of connection or rejection. Every positive response we give our partner is like depositing money in the bank account of real, lasting love. Every negative response is like depositing money in the bank account of the divorce attorneys you are both going to need.

Remember bids are often so simple we don’t recognize them as important. They can be a simple question, “Can you get me a glass of water while you’re up?” They can be a look that says, “I think you’re great.” They can be an affectionate touch. How we respond can make all the difference in the world.

Gottman’s research indicates that husbands who eventually were divorced ignored the bids from their wives 82 percent of the time compared to 19 percent for men in stable marriages. Women who later divorced ignored their husband’s bids 50 percent of the time while those who remained married only disregarded 14 percent of their husband’s bids.

Bids for connection are going on all the time. Before I was attuned to them and how important they were, I missed way too many. That’s likely why I’ve been divorced twice before. Carlin and I have been happily married this long because we’ve learned to respond positively to each other’s bids.

If a long-lasting relationship full of fun, affection, and passion isn’t motivating enough, remember that a lot of the illnesses we have, from diabetes to breast cancer, have roots in feeling unloved and disconnected. So, look for your partner’s bids and respond by turning toward them, not away. Please share your own experiences with bidding and responding. What has worked for you and your partner? Where do you still struggle?

Let me know what you think in the comments section and then follow me on Twitter for an ongoing dialogue: @MenAliveNow

Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live well throughout their lives. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Diamond’s new book, Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well, brings together the wisdom accumulated in 40 years helping more than 20,000 men, women, and children.

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