Marriage is Not a Big Thing, It’s a Million Little Things

By putting one foot in front of the other, you can create interactions of connection that lead to a relationship shaped by love, respect, and affirmation.

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What if I told you that there are specific, concrete steps to having a better relationship?

After spending more than four decades studying the components of what creates lasting and successful partnerships, Dr. John Gottman has discovered what couples can do to pave the way to having, and sustaining, their ideal marriage.

One revelation to come from his research is the idea that small, intentional moments hold more weight than isolated, extravagant gestures when it comes to building emotional longevity in your relationship. Dr. Gottman’s motto is “small things often.”

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your partner out for a night on the town, or whisk them away to a beachfront suite for a romantic weekend getaway. The big things are important too. It’s a reminder to appreciate the little things.

Bids are the building blocks of relationships

In his book The Relationship Cure, Gottman describes the term “bid” for the exchange of emotional communication in relationships. An example of a bid and response is the simple greeting of “Hello, how are you doing today?” met with, “Doing well! And how about you?”

Bids can range from basic attempts to connect (“Did you see that?”) all the way to deeper expressions of emotional vulnerabilities (“Am I a good husband?”). Bids are the building blocks of relationships, and our ability to “turn towards” and accept them is dependent on how well we are attuned to our partner.

Accepting bids builds connection. Missing bids results in disconnection. Think of bids as withdrawals and deposits into your relationship’s Emotional Bank Account.

I met with a couple, Tanya and Barrett, where it quickly became apparent that their “communication issues” were actually not deep-rooted, complex problems, but moments of missed receptiveness to each other’s bids for connection.

Tanya would vent about how frustrating it was for her to come home to Barrett, who would be decompressing from his busy day as a tax attorney by watching Netflix on his iPad.

Tanya talked about how she would walk through the door and shout from the entryway “Hey babe, I’m home!” to no response. She expressed how hurtful it felt for her, and admitted the resentment she had been building towards him for not acknowledging her. She began to write a script in her own mind that Barrett didn’t really care about her. Tanya had begun to feel extremely small in their relationship because of these missed bids to connect.
Through exploring this dynamic, Barrett recognized just how significant his ability to tune into Tanya’s bids for connection were. He agreed to take on the assignment of listening for her bids and doing his best to respond.

Every day that next week, he was ready. He even reported how nice it felt to be ready to greet Tanya when she walked through the door, and how great it was seeing her face light up when he gave her just a few seconds of attention. “I could tell it wasn’t about her being needy or attention-seeking. She really wanted to see me. That felt good.”

After a few weeks of doing this, Barrett shared that he had graduated himself from simple responses to Tanya. The night before our last session, Tanya walked through the door to Barrett cooking dinner for them in the kitchen.

I remember the tears in her eyes as she recalled Barrett telling her “Hey sugar! I remember you said you had wanted to try that new recipe for the chicken peanut sauté. Thought you might like to relax while I gave it a whirl tonight.”

The key to a successful bid for connection lies in your ability to respond, as well as your mutual ability to acknowledge your differences. It’s not about forcing yourself to agree with everything your partner asks simply for the sake of tuning into their needs. It’s about acknowledging the bid and responding through respect, which can happen successfully even during disagreement.

Bids will strengthen your relationship one step at a time. By putting one foot in front of the other, you can create interactions of connection that lead to a relationship shaped by love, respect, and affirmation.

The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.

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Liz Higgins is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate in Dallas, TX specializing in millennial couples and individuals. She writes an active relationship blog at www.lizhigginsmft.com. From pre-engagement counseling to newlywed issues, Liz is passionate about helping couples create the healthiest marriages possible.

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