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The Secret Ingredient to a Thriving Relationship: Turning Towards Each Other

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Turning toward and emotional bank account

As I’m writing this, my wife asks “Do you want to come try this?” referring to a new meal she just
made.

Do I really need to get up and try this now? I think to myself. After all, I’m writing for The
Gottman Institute.

Here’s what Drs. John and Julie Gottman say about these moments in their latest book Fight
Right, “what we saw in the Love Lab, with our three thousand couples, is that [these moments]
mattered—a lot.”

It’s what we do in these moments that carry the most weight for relationship satisfaction. Dr.
Carrie Cole’s research concluded that “turning towards” our partner’s bids for connection – like
the invitation to try a new meal – is the biggest factor to a happy relationship, making up for
65% of why married couples feel satisfied with each other.

Gottman’s research validates this: Happy couples turned toward their partners 86% of the
time—like pausing work to share a laugh over a meme. While unhappy couples only turned
toward 33%.

If you want to improve the quality of your relationship, these seemingly insignificant moments,
such as the one with my wife, are important to turn towards.

Better Relationships Begin with Turning Towards:

If you want a better relationship, including healthier conflict, you need to be intentional about
cueing into your partner’s bids for attention as well as being direct about yours.

Here’s why turning towards these seemingly insignificant moments matter:

When bids for connection are turned towards, it deposits a connection coin in what Drs. John
and Julie Gottman call the “emotion bank account.” Attentively responding to both clear and
nuanced bids, including those expressed during challenging moments, acts as incremental
investments in your relationships’ emotional reservoir.

For instance, When your partner lets out a frustrated sigh while dealing with household chores,
recognizing this as a bid for connection allows you to respond constructively—perhaps by
offering help or a listening ear to their overwhelm—transforming that moment of tension into an
opportunity for support and understanding, thereby making a positive deposit into your
emotional bank account. Consistent deposits, build a robust wealth of goodwill, grace, and a sense of togetherness.

These small moments build trust. And in conflict, each partner is asking questions such as:

  1. Do you have my best interest in mind?
  2. Can I trust that I matter to you?
  3. Can I trust that we are in this together, even when we disagree?

Couples who have a wealth of goodwill, connection, and affection can withdraw on those positive feelings in moments of conflict, regardless of the topic.

This sense of trust helps both partners be softer in their startups, seek to understand their
partner, repair quicker, as well as act more collaboratively when conflict arises because each
partner feels seen and cared for.

Low Emotional Bank Account

Couples who neglect these bids by turning away or against have little to no money in
their emotional bank account. This sets the couple up for nastier conflict because neither
partner is feeling connected or cared for.

This low bank account leads us to treat each other like enemies, rather than intimate allies.

Here are some of the risks of a depleted emotional bank account:

  • We misinterpret each other and go with our interpretations rather than checking them out. He didn’t pick up the correct items at the grocery store because he doesn’t listen. He clearly doesn’t care about me. Guess how I’ll treat my partner if this is how I think about them?
  • We assume the worst intentions and develop a negative sentiment override which causes us to see our partners actions in a negative light, rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. “You always do this. You don’t respect me. You stayed late at work on purpose.” We are not considering all the context that may have influenced our partner to be late.
  • We use harsher startups and the infamous Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) during conflict to try to get our needs met. “You never do your share around here. You’re so selfish. I’m doing everything myself.”

This low bank account inadvertently sabotages our relationship because we use harsh tactics to
get our needs met which reinforces negativity in the relationship, leading to failed repairs
attempts, and less bids for connection getting turned towards in the future. This sets up the
relationship to get into what Drs. John and Julie Gottman call the Negative Absorbing Markov
State:

The more bids are ignored or missed, the more we lose trust and view each other as the
problem, rather than teaming up against the challenge the relationship is facing, including
feeling disconnected.

This is why it’s so important to turn towards each other. The more we are intentional about
turning towards each other, even in the seemingly insignificant moments, the healthier our
relationship and conflict becomes.

The Emotional Bank Account Audit:

Take a moment and evaluate how emotionally connected you feel with your partner today by
answering these questions.

Choose the option that best describes your feelings:

Looking Forward to Time Together?
● I’m eager to spend time with my partner.
● I’m not looking forward to spending time with my partner.

Shared Humor and Fun
● When we’re together, laughter and fun are common.
● Our time together lacks laughter and fun.

Awareness of Each Other’s Lives
● I’m in tune with what my partner is currently experiencing and feeling.
● I’m unsure about my partner’s current experiences and feelings.

Gratitude for Partner’s Presence
● I feel grateful when I see my partner and appreciate their contributions.
● I don’t feel a sense of gratitude towards my partner’s presence or contributions.

Sense of We-ness
● I wake up feeling united and supported by my partner, regardless of our
schedules.
● I wake up feeling alone and unsupported.

If you find yourself selecting the second bullet point more often then the first, then it’s time to
work on noticing your partner’s bids for connection and turn towards them. The more you do
that for them, it increases the chances they will also start to do the same with you.

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Kyle is a couples therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist.  He loves nerding out on the science of relationships. When not highlighting research on a Sunday morning in his bathrobe, Kyle enjoys writing for his blog Kylebenson.net where he takes the research on successful relationships and transforms them into practical tools for romantic partners.

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