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by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.,
and Joan DeClaire
Phil and Tina, a couple in their thirties who seem to
have it all. Solid jobs, two beautiful kids, lots of
good friends -- and they love each other. Trouble is,
they haven't had sex in six months.
Seated together on a small sofa in a therapist's office,
the couple describes how the problem started.
"Tina's company was going through this big
reorganization," Phil explains. "And every day she'd
come home exhausted."
"It was a real drag," Tina remembers. "I was spending
all day in these long, tense meetings, trying to defend
people's jobs. When I got home, I couldn't shake the
stress. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I felt so
anxious. Phil tried to be nice, but . . ."
"I wanted to help her, to tell her it was going to be
okay, but I couldn't do anything right. It wasn't like
we had this huge, catastrophic breakdown or anything. It
was more about the little stuff. I'd kiss her on the
back of her neck or start to rub her stomach when we
were in bed -- things that used to get her attention.
But now I was getting nothing in return. Zip. It
definitely threw me off balance."
"And I felt that if I didn't get all hot and bothered
the minute he touched me, he was going to be wounded or
something," Tina explained. "It just made me so tense."
Phil got the point. "She has all these people leaning on
her at work. And then she comes home to this guy who's
feeling insecure, who's whining about his needs. It was
such a turnoff for her."
So, to preserve his pride, Phil quit trying. "I got
tired of the rejection," he explains to the therapist.
"I don't know how long we can go on like this. It's
tough to keep putting yourself out there only to be shut
down all the time. Sure, I love her, but sometimes I'm
afraid we're not going to make it."
"It's not working for me, either," Tina says through
tears. Then, after a long silence, she adds, "I miss
making love, too. I miss the way it used to be."
"Well, maybe that's a place to start," Phil says
quietly. "Because you never told me that before. You
never gave me that information."
Phil couldn't have said it better.
Whether people are
struggling to save a marriage, to cooperate in a family
crisis, or to build rapport with a difficult boss, they
usually have one thing in common: They need to share
emotional information that can help them feel connected.
Phil and Tina are like many couples I see in marital
therapy. Whatever conflicts the couples may have -- sex,
money, housework, kids -- all of them long for evidence
that their spouses understand and care about what
Sharing such information through words and behavior is
essential for improving any significant relationship.
This includes bonds with our kids, our siblings, our
friends, our coworkers. But even our best efforts to
connect can be jeopardized as a result of one basic
problem: failure to master what I call the "bid" -- the
fundamental unit of emotional communication.
This book (The
Relationship Cure)will show you five steps you can take to
achieve this mastery and make your relationships work:
1. Analyze the way you bid and the way you respond to
2. Discover how your brain's emotional command systems
affect your bidding process.
3. Examine how your emotional heritage impacts your
ability to connect with others and your style of
4. Develop your emotional communication skills.
5.Find shared meaning with others.
But first let's make sure you understand what I mean
when I talk about bids. A bid can be a question, a
gesture, a look, a touch -- any single expression that
says, "I want to feel connected to you." A response to a
bid is just that -- a positive or negative answer to
somebody's request for emotional connection.
At the University of Washington, my research colleagues
and I recently discovered how profoundly this bidding
process affects relationships. We learned, for example,
that husbands headed for divorce disregard their wives'
bids for connection 82 percent of the time, while
husbands in stable relationships disregard their wives'
bids just 19 percent of the time. Wives headed for
divorce act preoccupied with other activities when their
husbands bid for their attention 50 percent of the time,
while happily married wives act preoccupied in response
to their husbands' bids just 14 percent of the time.
When we compared how often couples in the two groups
extended bids and responded to them, we found another
significant difference. During a typical dinner-hour
conversation, the happily married people engaged one
another as many as one hundred times in ten minutes.
Those headed for divorce engaged only sixty-five times
in that same period. On the surface the contrast may
seem inconsequential, but taken together over a year,
the additional moments of connection among the happy
couples would be enough to fill a Russian novel.
We also found that this high rate of positive engagement
paid off in tremendous ways. For example, we now know
that people who react positively to one another's bids
have greater access to expressions of humor, affection,
and interest during arguments. It's almost as if all the
good feelings they've accumulated by responding
respectfully and lovingly to one another's bids form a
pot of emotional "money in the bank." Then, when a
conflict arises, they can draw on this reservoir of good
feeling. It's as if something inside unconsciously says,
"I may be mad as hell at him right now, but he's the guy
who listens so attentively when I complain about my job.
He deserves a break." Or, "I'm as angry as I've ever
been with her, but she's the one who always laughs at my
jokes. I think I'll cut her some slack."
Having access to humor and affection during a conflict
is invaluable because it helps to de-escalate bad
feelings and leads to better understanding. Rather than
shutting down communication in the midst of an argument,
people who can stay present with one another have a much
better opportunity to resolve issues through their
conflicts, repair hurt feelings, and build positive
regard. But this good work must begin long before the
conflict starts; it's got to be grounded in those dozens
of ordinary, day-to-day exchanges of emotional
information and interest that we call bids.
And what happens when we habitually fail to respond
positively to one another's bids for emotional
connection? Such failure is rarely malicious or
mean-spirited. More often we're simply unaware of or
insensitive to others' bids for our attention. Still,
when such mindlessness becomes habitual, the results can
I've seen such results in my clinical practice at the
Gottman Institute, where I've counseled many people who
describe their lives as consumed by loneliness. They
feel lonely despite their proximity to many significant
people in their lives -- lovers, spouses, friends,
children, parents, siblings, and coworkers. Often they
seem surprised and greatly disappointed at the
deterioration of their relationships.
"I love my wife," one client says of his faltering
marriage, "but our relationship feels empty somehow." He
senses that the passion is waning, that the romance is
drifting away. What he can't see are all the
opportunities for closeness that surround him. Like so
many other distressed, lonely people, he doesn't mean to
ignore or dismiss his spouse's bids for emotional
connection. It's just that the bids happen in such
simple, mundane ways that he doesn't recognize these
moments as very important.
Clients like these typically have trouble at work, as
well. Although they're often skilled at forming
collegial bonds when they first start a job, they tend
to focus totally on the tasks at hand, often to the
detriment of their relationships with coworkers. Later,
when they're passed over for a promotion, or when they
discover they have no influence on an important project,
they're baffled. And they often feel betrayed and
disappointed by their colleagues and bosses as a result.
Such feelings of disappointment and loss also crop up in
these clients' relationships with friends and relatives.
Many describe peers, siblings, and children as disloyal,
unworthy of trust. But when we dig deeper, we find a
familiar pattern. These clients seem unaware of the bids
for connection that their friends and relatives have
been sending them. So it's no wonder that their loved
ones feel no obligation to continue their support.
People who have trouble with the bidding process also
have more conflict -- conflict that might be prevented if
they could simply acknowledge one another's emotional
needs. Many arguments spring from misunderstandings and
feelings of separation that might have been avoided if
people would have the conversations they need to have.
But because they don't, they argue instead. Such
conflicts can lead to marital discord, divorce,
parenting problems, and family feuds. Friendships fade
and deteriorate. Adult sibling relationships wither and
die. Kids raised in homes filled with chronic conflict
have more difficulty learning, getting along with
friends, and staying healthy. People who can't connect
are also more likely to suffer isolation, as well as
dissatisfaction and instability in their work lives. Any
of these problems can create a tremendous amount of
stress in people's lives, leading to all sorts of
physical and mental health problems.
But our findings about the bidding process give me a
tremendous amount of hope. They tell me that people who
consistently bid and respond to bids in positive ways
have an astounding chance for success in their
article is excerpted with permission from the book:
The Relationship Cure
by John M. Gottman, Ph.D., and Joan DeClaire
2001 by John M. Gottman, Ph.D., and Joan DeClaire.
Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.