Some of the most important moments in a marriage relationship are brief. They are the moments when a husband or wife tries to connect emotionally with their spouse. How their spouse responds determines the impact of that moment on their marriage. The impact will be positive or negative.
Many among us are driven to produce and achieve. They turn toward the opportunities to complete the next item on their task list. They turn toward their dream of a better job, another sale, a bigger win, or a more secure future. Often they do it for their spouse and for their children. Too often it's at the expense of those relationships--especially their marriage.
Many among us aren’t so driven by achievement. They just want to enjoy life. They turn toward the next episode of their favorite TV show. They turn toward the next fun time with friends, the next win by their favorite team, the next outdoor adventure, or the next sip of a fine wine or bite of good food. For many the pursuit of happiness results in an unhappy marriage.
An individual who consistently turns toward whatever drives them often misses important opportunities. They miss their spouse’s attempts to connect emotionally. Marriage researcher John Gottman calls these bids for connection. Missing bids for connection once or twice may be inconsequential. A pattern of missed bids for connection is a pathway to a broken marriage.
Gottman has devoted over 30 years of his life to studying thousands of couples. He has learned that a husband or wife’s response to their spouse’s bids for connection is a critical factor in a marriage's success or failure. He has identified four typical responses to bids for connection:
1) Turning against your spouse.
Picture a wife working through her list of household chores. Her husband steps into the bedroom where she’s dusting, stacking, sorting, and putting things away. He asks, “What’s for dinner?” She snaps back, “Do I look like your maid? Get your own dinner. I’m busy enough cleaning up after you and the kids.”
Imagine a husband sitting on the couch in the family room. The TV is on and his attention is on the game being played by his favorite sports team. His wife steps into the room and asks, “Can you take a break and check on what our son upstairs?” He waves her off, and says, “Quiet! I don’t need your nagging right now. I’m watching the game.”
Husbands and wives who respond to bids for connection with criticism or with a tone of contempt are turning against their spouse. When they do this repeatedly, whatever connection they started with breaks down and is often replaced by a wall of anger and resentment.
2) Turning away from your spouse.
If the wife busy cleaning her house ignored or groaned at her husband’s inquiry about dinner, she would be turning away from him. If the wife asking for her husband to check on their son was met with silence or a grunt, he would be turning away from her. Like the spouse whose husband or wife turns against them, spouses met with this type of response again and again also experience loss of connection with their partner.
3) Turning enthusiastically toward your spouse.
Imagine the house-cleaning wife responding positively to her husband’s “What’s for dinner?” She looks at him, smiles and says, “Let’s get cleaned up, go out to eat, and see a movie afterward. I’ll ask my parents to take the kids overnight.”
Imagine the TV-watching husband responding to his wife’s request for help by turning on the DVR to record the game. He stands up from his place on the couch and says, “No problem. I’ll do it right now.” He smiles and winks at his wife, “Anything for you, Babe!”
These are examples of turning enthusiastically toward your spouse. This type of response contributes to a strong connection and is the kind of response many spouses wish for. But it’s not the most important response. Neither is it reasonable to expect this kind of response every time there is a bid for connection.
4) Turning toward your spouse.
When the wife intent on cleaning her home hears her husband ask, “What’s for dinner?” she answers, “Let’s order takeout.” There’s not a lot of emotion expressed, but her response is kind.
The husband with his eyes and ears focused on the game answers, “Yeah. There should be a commercial break coming up soon. If it can wait a few minutes, I’ll check on him then.” He’s not enthusiastic, but respectful.
In both of these examples, each spouse responded positively to the bid for connection by turning toward their husband and wife with their words, if not their bodies. In Gottman’s it’s the most satisfying marriages where these kinds of responses to bids for connection are the most common. They’re brief but powerful. Their words and actions say, “You matter to me.” Instead of missing the opportunity to connect by turning away from or against their spouse, they turn those brief moments to their advantage by turning toward their spouse. By doing this, they cultivate a trust between each other that builds strong emotional connections that help a marriage thrive.
The Best (or Worst) Way to Build a Strong Connection with Your Spouse #marriage
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.