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 . . ."
Sharing Emotional Information
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.
With many couples I see in marital therapy, whatever conflicts they may have -- sex, money, housework, kids -- all of them long for evidence that their spouses understand and care about what they're feeling.
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 others' bids.
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 bidding.
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.
Increasing the Rate of Positive Engagement
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 be devastating.
Seeing the Opportunities for Closeness
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. P
eople 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 relationships.
Excerpted by permission of Crown,
a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
©2001 John M. Gottman, Ph.D., and Joan DeClaire.
About The Authors
John M. Gottman, Ph.D. is the cofounder and co-director of the Gottman Institute, along with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. His work has been featured on many national television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, Dateline, and Good Morning America. His previous books include: The Relationship Cure, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, When Men Batter Women, and A Couple's Guide to Communication.
Joan DeClaire is a freelance writer specializing in psychology, health, and family issues.