© Helen Creagh for Auckland Therapy Blog, 29 January 2019
As I work with couples I become increasingly irritated by the false ideas of romantic love which pervade our society; in the movies, on television and worst, in those constructions pretending to be ‘real life’ – the YouTube VLOGs.
The truth is much simpler, more ordinary. It’s less marketable but when we get real about relationships, we enjoy something deeper, more enduring and life-giving than ever was seen on TV. Thankfully, we have researchers and therapists like John and Julie Gottman to help us to deconstruct socially pervasive notions and expectations about relationship.
One of the common characteristics of those couples who the Gottman’s referred to as Masters of Relationship, is their capacity to turn towards rather than away from their partner’s bids for attention. The relationship masters, who have satisfying, long term relationships, respond to bids from their partners more than 80 percent of the time. The disasters, meantime, responded thirty per cent of the time or less.
Maybe this sounds like hard work? In fact, it is not. It is as simple as when he asks her, “Do you know if we have flour in the pantry?”, and she responds. Examples of her response might be;
The basic equation is one partner asks for attention and the other responds, they turn towards that request, or ‘bid’.
We use the term ‘bid’ because when we want attention we don’t always ask a direct question. A bid for attention could be expressed in myriad ways; examples might be a sad face, a sigh or cough, a look, a poke in the ribs, a withdrawal or a physical reaching out. There are numerous ways we seek connection with our partners. Romance in the pantry begins and thrives when we simply turn towards those bids for attention most of the time.
Imagine a scene where a woman is watching television, she is really focused on the news when she hears her husband muttering in the kitchen. She has the choice to turn up the volume on the TV or to touch base with her partner and see what is up. If she makes the latter choice, she turns towards her partner’s bid. Couples who choose to tune into one another in this way build the foundations of trust, connection and romance and will also, more likely, enjoy good sex.
In the children’s story, The Little Red Hen, the main character asks all her friends for help in making a loaf of bread, help to pick and grind the wheat into flour, to knead the dough and bake. All her friends refuse until she asks who will help her eat the hot, freshly baked bread. In the end, she turns away those hungry friends who rush for the bread, and who did not pay attention when she asked for help.
In a relationship, if you pay attention to your partner’s bids, you are much more likely to find yourself welcome when you are looking for what you need from them; a hot meal, hot romance, hot sex or maybe even a heated discussion.
It helps to be aware of two major obstacles to responding to our partner’s bids for attention.
The first is the wireless world. Most of us know that engaging with screens can be a significant distraction. Our brains are ‘wired’ to respond to the dopamine that is released during screen time and to want more of it. However, this does not foster relationships. In truth, it can be a significant contributor to relationship breakdown. A conscious effort is needed to put our partner’s bids first and put our screens down.
The second is when a bid is disguised in negativity or criticism. Bids like these can be very hard to attune to because often we react to the delivery rather than the message. Many complaints and criticisms disguise a want or a need, a bid, a desire for attention. When our partner says, “I see as usual you are expressing your common genetic heritage with a potato, while I do all the cooking (sigh and eye roll)”, it is not so easy to see beyond the criticism and respond to the underlying bid, for example, “Is there something you need me to do?”.
The research shows the more we connect, the more we connect. Unlike the Little Red Hen’s distracted, hungry friends, you just start by tuning in to your partners bids and responding. The thing to do is to begin.