The #1 relationship killer is turning against each other’s bids for emotional connection. “Turning against” happens when your partner reaches out to you and you reject them. Whether intentional or not, it damages the very fabric of your partnership.
Imagine your partner asks for a date night. Here are the types of harmful responses that you never want to say:
Contemptuous response. Hurtful disrespecting comments such as insults (e.g., “Is that all you ever want?”)
Belligerent response. Provocative or combative comebacks (e.g., “Are you saying I’m not there for you? Yeesh, what more do you want from me?”)
Contradictory response. Less hostile than a belligerent response, but it still blocks the bidder’s attempt to connect (e.g., “Don’t we see each other enough already?”)
Domineering response. Attempts to control the other person (e.g., “We don’t need another date night. We’re fine.”)
Critical response. A broad-based attack on the bidder’s character (e.g., “Again with the date night! You’re such a nag.”)
The build-up of such responses creates a deep divide between you two. The more of these you and your partner experience, the more likely they are to destroy your partnership entirely. Avoid these relationship killers at all cost!
Bids are attempts at connection between partners. When they don’t go as planned, it’s frustrating for both people. If your partner keeps missing your bids, there’s a chance your bids are not as clear as you think.
In “The Relationship Cure,” Dr. John Gottman explains that partners who make subtle bids or “dance around issues” are likely trying to avoid emotional risk. After all, “openly bidding for connection can make us feel vulnerable,” he says. “Our hearts and egos are on the line.”
This “fuzzy bidding,” as he calls it, can look like being purposely ambiguous (“I’m fine with either”), negative framing (“Well, if you’d wash a dish once in a while, I wouldn’t be so cranky”), or not saying what you want at all.
Your partner is not a mindreader and most likely does not respond well to criticism veiled as expressing a need. While you may think you’re avoiding confrontation or rejection by making fuzzy bids, such interactions can increase the odds of both of you feeling hurt and misunderstood.
Make a commitment to be an emotional risk-taker when it comes to bids. Think about how you ask your partner for their attention and consider ways that are more direct (such as “I’d rather us stay home tonight” or “I’m really tired. I need time with you and some help around the house”). It’s vulnerable to put yourself out there. However, the safety of a healthy partnership is the perfect place to start.
If you’ve been together a long time, it’s easy to be on “autopilot.” You’re so used to the way you speak and interact with each other that you stop mindfully listening to what the other says.
Do these exchanges sound familiar?
Your Partner: “What a beautiful sunset.” You: “Uh huh. Did you put the trash out?”
You: “I’m concerned about Sam. I don’t know what to do.” Your Partner: “Yeah, I bet… What’s for dinner?”
You can turn away from a bid by absentmindedly responding to your partner or replying when you didn’t really hear what they said. This can lead to built-up tension and even full-blown conflict, especially if your partner feels unheard and rejected.
This turning away is often unintentional. You may not even be aware that you missed a bid because, such as the first example, your mind was on the trash and their mind was on the sunset.
Talk to your partner about a time that either one of you was on “autopilot.” If you had the chance again, how would you respond?
Sending and recognizing nonverbal bids for connection are collectively an important part of your relationship. Bids can range from subtle to obvious and always signal the need for attention and connection. It’s good for you both to know them when you see them and accept the invitation to turn towards each other.
So, what does it look like when your partner makes a nonverbal bid for intimacy? Do you know their go-to move? Is it a smile from across the table? Do they cuddle close at bedtime? Also, how do you initiate? Are you sure your partner knows what you’re asking for?
In “What Makes Love Last?” Dr. John Gottman notes that these types of bids work, but only “as long as you are both clear about what message you’re sending or receiving.”
Take time today to talk about your nonverbal bids for intimacy. Start with recalling past lovemaking encounters. How did they begin? Who initiated and how? Did either of you ever offer a bid that was missed?
Learning to send and receive bids effectively depends on you both getting on the same page in and out of the bedroom.
As you give your partnership a solid foundation with the building blocks of the Sound Relationship House, don’t skip the middle level of “Turning Toward Instead of Away.” Recognizing and responding to your partner’s bids shows them how attuned you are to their needs.
However, some bids seem small and low stakes, and you’re tempted to ignore them. The deep sigh. The distracted stare. That “I’m fine” doesn’t sound fine.
Remember that your world stops when your partner is hurting, and when you respond to those bids that signal your partner is in pain, you can support them when they need it most.
You know your partner. You know when something isn’t right. So, when you notice those smaller bids, take the time to offer your undivided attention and ask them how they really feel.
You and your partner are probably already pretty good at recognizing each other’s verbal bids for connection—when in doubt, the tried and true “hey!” will get some kind of acknowledgment. You’re also probably getting better at recognizing your friends’ and co-workers’ digital bids. Those usually come in the form of a notification.
But bids can be nonverbal, too. According to John Gottman, nonverbal bids include:
Affectionate touching, such as a pat on the back, a handshake, a squeeze, a kiss, a hug, or a back or shoulder rub.
Facial expressions, such as a smile, blowing a kiss, trying to make eye contact, or sticking out your tongue.
Playful touching, such as tickling, wrestling, dancing, or a gentle bump or shove.
Affiliating gestures, such as opening a door, offering a place to sit, handing over a utensil, or pointing to a shared activity or interest.
Vocalizing, such as laughing, chuckling, grunting, sighing, or groaning in a way that invites interaction or interest.
When all else fails, you can also try looming in the doorway until your partner notices.
How do you make bids for your partner’s attention? What’s your partner’s preferred bid delivery method? Try to tune into bids today and see what you notice.