William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, said “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” As humans, we are wired for connection. In our relationships with family, friends, co-workers even, we want to feel a sense of connection. In romantic relationships, we strive to have a deeper connection and experience great disappointment and frustration when that connection seems out of reach.
Dr John Gottman, who is well known for his work on marital stability, refers to something called an emotional bid. The concept is that emotional bids are constantly made and how we respond to those bids impact the strength of the connection in the relationship. Positive responses to emotional bids help to build an emotional bank account. In times of relationship distress or conflict, you can draw from your emotional bank account and weather the storms a lot easier. When an emotional bank account is low, it’s much more difficult to get through these challenging times. What you can be sure of is that your relationship will come across some challenging times and there will be conflict. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be prepared and have a strong emotional bank account?
There are three things that we do that either strengthen our emotional connection or make it more difficult to feel to feel that closeness.
Your partner comments about how awful the traffic was this morning on the way to work (i.e. bid for emotional connection). If you’re turning towards your partner, you would respond by saying something like “Wow, that sucks. Hopefully you were still able to make it on time.” This might seem like a small and meaningless interaction but the response to the comment is what will help to make your partner feel heard. Essentially you would have made a deposit in your emotional bank account with that type of response. There are countless opportunities through your interactions to turn towards your partner. This isn’t to say that your relationship will be doomed if you don’t turn towards your partner every single time. However, the more turning towards that happens the better for the relationship. Dr. Gottman found in his research that happy couples bid for emotional connection far greater than unhappy couples do.
Let’s continue with the same example. Your partner makes the same comment about traffic, except this time you respond by saying, “Well, you should have left on time for work. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you to get up earlier to avoid the traffic.” This is what we call turning against. Turning against your partner often involves hostility, contempt, sarcasm or ridicule. It’s a sure way to create emotional distance in a relationship. What tends to happen over time in these instances, is the partner who is making the bid for emotional connection eventually stops and the bit of connection that’s left is destroyed.
Turning Away involves a complete disregard for your partner’s attempt at an emotional bid. If you’re turning away, you would completely ignore the comment about being late for work. Another turning away response would be to respond by making a comment about something totally unrelated which is a sign of being preoccupated with other matters. You can see how turning away would create challenges in maintaining strong emotional connections. Ignoring or acting preoccupied are sure ways to withdraw from that emotional back account you desperately want to build. Consistently turning away is destructive and can create a climate of hostility which is bad for your relationship.
Take some time to reflect on how you have been responding to your partner’s attempts at emotional bids. If your goal is to strengthen the emotional connection in your relationship, I suggest that you make a greater effort to turn towards your partner more frequently. There are many ways to do this. Turning towards can be as simple as making more eye contact, a smile, an affectionate touch or engaging in any behavior that invites interaction and shows interest. Your relationship will not only benefit in the short term but for the long haul as well.