On a marvelous summer's day, as a couple was driving to see me, they drove past a meadow of sheep. Barbara tried to make a Gottman "Bid for Connection" with her husband, John. She just wanted to catch her husband's attention to the beauty she was seeing. She wanted him to turn toward her.
"Look at those sheep in the pasture!" she said excitedly.
"Would you be quiet?! I'm trying to drive! It's great that you can sightsee, but if I look, we'll get into an accident," John scolded her.
"I just wanted you to glance at them or even pull over..." she replied, but her voice trailed off. There was plenty of room to do just that on this country road.
John suddenly swerved the car into the dirt payment and stopped. He was now visibly angry.
"I just can't take it anymore," he told her. "You ordering me around? I'm tired of it." You exhaust me with your demands!"
Trying to connect
Gottman calls what his wife Barbara did as making a "bid for attention" or a "bid for connection." She was asking her husband to notice her world. It was not to control him but to try to make an emotional connection. She saw a beautiful scene and wanted him to enjoy it with her.
As a Gottman Certified Therapist, we would describe how he responded to that bid as "turning against." He didn't simply ignore her ("turning away"); he got mad at her for attempting the bid.
Both verbally and nonverbally, he rejected her efforts. He described them as "orders" that "exhausted" him. It was a hostile way of responding to a bid.
He told me later that his goal was to get her to stop talking while he was driving. Unfortunately, using this method, it is likely to generalizes into "Stop talking to him" altogether.
Turning toward and effective bids
In contrast, another couple, Megan and Mike, had a running joke between them. It involved an exchange they had overheard years ago in a Chinese restaurant.
An elderly couple was ordering.
"No bamboo!" the woman shouted, much too loudly in the small space. She repeatedly directed the waiter over and over, "I want the soup, but no bamboo!"
Over the years, whenever either of them noticed a particularly insistent and demanding patron, they made the following bid for connection: One would turn to the other, and say: "No bamboo!" with a smile or wink. Both would get the partner's bid.
These small exchanges, recognizing your partner's attempts to grab your attention, or share a moment as it happens, seem at first, trivial. However, they are anything but.
Bids predict divorce: 33% vs. 86%
In Dr. John Gottman's Institute, bids were highly predictive. Those who divorced six years later turned toward their partner's bids 33% of the time. Those that stayed together in Gottman's relationship research did so 86% of the time.
As he mentions in The Relationship Cure and later in The Love Prescription, it became essential to help couples understand how important it is to recognize and pay attention to these fleeting interactions.
"How people react to their partner's bids for connection was, in fact, the biggest predictor of happiness and relationship stability. These fleeting little moments, it turns out, spelled the difference between happiness and unhappiness, between lasting love and divorce." (The Love Prescription, p. 5).
Like John, many partners misread a bid for connection. They see their partner's efforts to connect as unnecessarily distracting. They want to punish or ignore their partner for the interruption. The connection can be seen as threatening or like John did, an "order," and he isn't willing to respond.
Responding to everyday efforts
Gottman's notion of Bids for Connection is the small, everyday effort to seek their partner's attention, affection, or emotional connection. They are often subtle gestures or invitations for engagement. The way these bids are received and responded to greatly impacts the quality of the relationship. Recognizing and responding positively to bids for connection can foster emotional intimacy and strengthen the bond between partners.