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Bids for Emotional Connection in Couples Therapy

Posted by Dan Wile, PhD on 11/15/10 - 12:03 PM
John Gottman’s concept, “bids for emotional connection,” is practically a complete theory of relationships in itself. Hearing the word “bids,” we picture partners reaching out to each other in a variety of ways. Gary Chapman, in his book, The Five Love Languages, lists five such ways: words of affirmation (“That situation was delicate and you really handled it beautifully”), touch (“How about a hug?”), quality time (“Let’s get a babysitter and make a reservation at Chez Alouette”), gifts (“This scarf was so gorgeous, it had your name on it”), and acts of service (“Why don’t you take a nap while I do the cleaning up?”).
 
Partners make bids to create, increase, maintain, and re-establish connection. Arriving home at the end of a day, we ask: “How was work today?” Noticing that our partner is preoccupied, we say, “What are you thinking?” Sensing something amiss, we send out a probe: “Are you upset with me about something?”
 
“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” A lot is going on all the time in the form of these little signals that partners are often unaware of sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention, as my partner, Dorothy Kaufmann, puts it.
 
What the person making the bid wants, of course, is a positive response (“Oh yes—tell me. Your sister always has such a special angle on things”). What that partner doesn’t want is an angry response (“Don’t bother me; I’m not finished with the paper yet”) or no response (grunting in acknowledgement and continuing to read the paper). Borrowing terminology from Karen Horney, Gottman labels these three responses turning toward, against, and away.
 
Gottman’s major point is that repeated failure to turn toward in response to our partner’s bids leads our partner to stop making bids. The relationship sags and both partners feel lonely. Couples frequently find themselves in a devitalized relationship without knowing how they got there. Turning away or against their partner’s bids for emotional connection is how they got there.
 
Susan Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy can be viewed in these terms. She focuses on the traumatic effect of having our bids for emotional connection rejected or ignored (our partner turns against or away), resulting in our being afraid to make further bids and, instead, attacking or withdrawing (turning against or away) in turn.
 
If turning away or against is a problem, shouldn’t we try always to turn toward? Perhaps. But forcing ourselves to be nice when we don’t feel nice also leads to devitalization or to a buildup of resentment that culminates in an explosion. And we may not always be able to turn toward; the impulse to turn away or against may be automatic or overpowering. Furthermore, the original bid might have been made in a manner that provokes a negative response—that is, it might have been offered anxiously, demandingly, reproachfully, or failing to take account of what the other is doing or feeling at the moment. Gottman says that temper tantrums may be bids in some situations.
 
But maybe we can create a vantage point above the fray—a platform—from which to report that we have turned away or against. We can say, “I know I’m over the top.” Or, “Wow, you don’t deserve my snapping at you like this.” Or, “I know I’m lousy company at the moment; I’m caught up in writing this thing.” We would be bringing our partners in on our concern that we are not doing right by them. We would be turning toward by acknowledging that we have turned away or against.
 
But it is difficult to be self-reflective in the heat of the moment. It would be easier to go to our partners later and say, “I was so focused on making that last paragraph work that I hardly said hello when you came in last night. I feel bad about it.” Or, “I hate how irritable I’ve been lately, and I’m sure you hate it even more.” Or, “I know I gave you a tough time when you made me those perfectly wonderful eggs this morning. I must have been still fuming over that comment you made Saturday.” Or “I keep forgetting that when you blow up like that it’s because you’re hurt.”
 
We would be making a bid to reconnect after having previously ignored or rejected our partner’s bid. We would be reconnecting in the act of talking about how we had been disconnected. We would be talking intimately about not having been intimate—which is perhaps the ultimate intimacy and the fullest way we can join.
Filed under: Couples Therapy
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