“How in the world do they do it?” Such a question is frequently posed by many people when they see elderly couples, well into 40+ years of marriage, who still seem deeply in love with each other. What could possibly be the secret to their success? John Gottman and colleagues have completed the research over a span of many years regarding what accounts for success in long-term relationships. According to Gottman, it’s not about the lack of fighting or super-compatibility (such as various needs and/or interests being met on a constant basis); rather, it’s because these couples took the time out to create a positive, enduring, and intimate friendship. Gottman’s work has covered understanding communication and conflict resolution, and has focused on the fundamental importance of creating positivity in intimate relationships. On the basis of his research, he generated 7 principles that are key to healthy relationships. Let’s explore another one of these principles: turning toward your partner instead of away.
Gottman sees the capacity for intimate partners to state their needs and attempts to create a connection that is received by the other as central to successful relationships. In a study Gottman conducted with couples, exploring relationship success six years after they married, he found that couples who stayed together turned toward each other 86% of the time in contrast to those who separated who only turned toward each other 33% of the time. Ignoring your partner’s needs and being unable to express your own feelings (and trust that they will be met) builds distance and disconnection. It’s pretty clear how this kind of behavior can quickly spiral into a self-destructive pattern. In fact, this type of behavior affects many relationships, and is partly why either 50% of marriages end in divorce or why couples are increasingly seeking therapy. The more you fail to notice the needs of the other and express your needs, the more likely it is that your partner will also be less inclined to express his/her needs and notice yours. The corollary also holds true: the more you are able notice your partners needs and express yours, the more he/she will feel enabled to notice your needs and state his/her own needs. This process of turning toward each other only generates more of the same – more love, more intimacy and more connection.
So how can you start to turn toward your partner instead of away? By noticing what Gottman terms your partner’s “bids”, you can go a long way toward turning to your partner. Bids are the ways we express our needs in a relationship. They represent attempts at generating affection, receiving attention and essentially any form of positive relating. Women are more inclined than men to express their need for intimacy in the form of bids, although in healthy relationships both partners feel comfortable expressing their need for positive connection in this manner. A gentle touch on your partner’s arm, catching his/her eye from across the room or sending a positive emoji WhatsApp all represent bids. There are also more complex expressions of bids such as asking your partner’s opinion or advice regarding an important decision you have to make.
These bids at building more positive connection in the relationship often are multi-layered. While you may simply be asking your partner if you look good in your new outfit, at a deeper level you are asking him/her “Do you notice me, do you find me attractive?” A request to make the kids’ breakfast may actually have a deeper meaning of “I need your help.” By noticing bids, you are turning toward your partner. Ongoing awareness and sensitivity to the bids your partner makes not only makes for more loving and pleasant day to day interactions but also signifies the sensitivity you have for your partner’s needs, which ultimately deepens the intimacy in the relationship.
So, don’t be afraid to state your needs, notice your partner’s attempts to create intimacy and connection, and embrace these attempts. Make turning toward each other a pillar of your relationship and a part of how you interact with your partner on a day to day basis, and notice how it enhances the intimacy and connection you feel for your partner.