Do you want to improve your relationships? Properly respond to relational “bids.”

Individuals are complex. And when two people are in relationship with one another, complications become exponential. 

John and Julie Gottman offer us help.

The Gottmans are psychologists who run The Gottman Institute in New York City. Their work, based on scientific studies, is devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships. What they have discovered is significant. Their work focuses on the marriage relationship but their insights are beneficial for all relationships.  

The following is taken from an article titled “Masters of Love,” by Emily Esfanhani Smith, published June 12, 2014 in The Atlantic. In her article, Smith writes about John Gottman’s theory of responding to relational “bids.”

“[In one of his studies] Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters [happily married people] created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters [unhappily married people] squashed it. He designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.

“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls ‘bids.’ For example, a husband who is a bird enthusiast notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

“The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either ‘turning toward’ or ‘turning away’ from her husband. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

“People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, ‘Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.’

“These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up only had ‘turn-toward bids’ 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had ‘turn-toward bids’ 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

“By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?”

Simple, isn’t it. Our spouse, children, friends, and coworkers make “bids” for our time and attention. When we properly respond to those bids (and it usually doesn’t take a lot of time), relationships are nourished. When we continually ignore the bids, relationships suffer.

16 Replies to “Do you want to improve your relationships? Properly respond to relational “bids.””

  1. Good information!! This will be very helpful when I am involved not only in my relationship with my wife, but when I observe and coach my children’s relationships. However most of all these are “healthy”.

  2. I agree with this 100% percent. I was in a 44 yr. marriage where for most of our marriage, my husband’s actions were those of totally ignoring me. Even though deeply hurt, I remained in the marriage, not learning until years later, he was unfaithful and had begun an affair while we were married. Hindsight is now indicative that he was not merely rude, but had truly disregarded me as his “wife.”

    1. Jane, I’m really sorry for the many years you endured a painful marriage. I hope you now have peace. Fortunately, our important emotional needs can be met by many different relationships, not just marriage, so I hope you have mutually beneficial friends and family in your life. Take care.

  3. Thanks Don. I was going to use an exclamation point in initial gratitude but thought about your last post.

    I first encountered relational bids last semester with Dr. Gary Barnes at DTS in class. I realized that my wife makes these bids in ways that I don’t quickly realize.

    Thanks for the reminder! Just one exclamation point:)

    1. Tristan, thanks for taking the time to write. I’m still learning how to identify “bids” in my marriage, family and work relationships. I’m also learning that it often only takes 1-2 minutes to satisfy a bid. Take care.

  4. Makes good sense. But they need an effective paradigm of decision making/discussions which my wife and I of 62 happy years have evolved and may be willing to share with others. It is based on our MBS/PHR model of achieving a consistently high Marital/Relationship LOF which is based on our HAY chart which is transferred to our Correlations Chart and used in our 3 C’s modifications process. It works beautifully and will be described in my book.

    1. Charles, it sounds like you and Madeleine have devoted a lot of effort to understanding each other. I admire and affirm that. Don

  5. As I think back over our 50+ years of marriage, I recognize that this relational “bid” behavior (a basic matter of simple courtesy) has grown to be increasingly ever-present in our relationship. My husband and I are contented, still in love, and still learning new things about each other’ interests and abilities!

    1. Sharon, I’m happy for you and your husband, that responding to relational bids has become an integral part of your relationship. I’m working on that in my relationship with Mary.

  6. Wow, Don! What a stimulating article and “proposition”. Seems to me the real issue, “meeting their partner’s emotional needs” is almost overshadowed by the simple example. I think I might often fail the “bird test”…especially if I were watching football and it was 3rd and 8 on the 15 yard line. I might say “just a minute”, because I do NOT multi task. My wife is an incessant reader and I often interrupt with a question or comment and she may say “Can I finish this paragraph?”, but always with kindness. We understand each other. Maybe two significant factors that are implied but not mentioned would be personality type and the ability to multi-task. The “test” may be harder for some than others. But “patience” and “kindness” will win the toughest day, don’t you think?

    1. Neil, thanks for adding some good thoughts to this discussion. I do think that some personality types are more likely to respond properly to people’s needs (example: someone with the gift of mercy), and other people have to work harder at it. I’m still thinking about your thought about multi-tasking and how it relates to this subject. For those who do well at multi-tasking, I suppose it is easier for them to respond to relational bids and keep going.

    1. Hi Elken, thanks for responding. I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but I think you’re commenting on the fact that in many relationships one partner does a good job of responding to bids while the other partner doesn’t, which is a very lopsided relationship. Perhaps reminding the neglecting partner about the importance of reciprocity would help.

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