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Are You Turning Toward Your Partner . . . Or Away?

Dr. Bill Mitcham is the Director/Therapist at The Marriage Maintenance Center:

Willie Nelson recorded a classic country music song that resonated with many couples about emotional disconnectedness.  “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore” is a synonym for “I don’t feel close to you anymore.”  If I went through my counseling files and made a list of the issues that couples write on the intake sheet, I would guess that 85 percent of them would say “We don’t talk anymore” or “We are not emotionally connected like we used to be.”  All couples experience this phenomenon from time to time.  It is a common marital malady, for good marriages and for not-so-good marriages.

John Gottman, my favorite researcher on marriage-related issues, has coined a term that might shed some light on this problem and help couples prevent this feeling of isolation and loneliness in marriage.  His word as used in his book, The Relationship Cure, is “Bid.”

He defines “marital bids” as any words, behaviors, looks or gestures a spouse uses to try to make an emotional connection with his or her partner—the opposite of emotional distancing or disconnectedness.  A bid might be words like, “Honey, let’s go for a walk” or “Let’s get away for a weekend.”  Bids may be behaviors like a hug, a sustained kiss or reaching to hold the other’s hand.  Sexual invitations via words, looks or gestures can become bids for closeness.

Gottman, and his team of researchers at the University of Washington discovered three typical responses marriage partners make to these bids:  Turning Toward; Turning Away and Turning Against.  Here are two “turning toward” responses to the bids to take a walk or get away for the weekend:  “I’d love to walk, let’s do it” or “I have been thinking the same as you about getting away.  Where do you want to go?”  Here are two “turning away” responses:  “It’s too hot to walk.  I don’t to miss the ball scores on the news” or “We don’t have the money to go away for the weekend, and I have too much work to do.”  Here are two “turning against” responses:  “Why don’t you use some of that walking energy to cut the grass?  The neighbors are starting to give us dirty looks” or “There you go again, spending money that you know damn well we don’t have!”

It seems quite obvious that the first two responses are acceptance bids and the spouse feels respected and valued.  The next four responses are rejections and devaluations.  Gottman discovered many couples were unaware of the reality that they use “turning away” and “turning against” responses to their partner’s invitations to get close.  The researchers also discovered that rejected bids mean the partner will send less and less bids and bids accepted generated more and more bids.

When a spouse’s bids are continually rejected, that spouse will stop bidding and distance himself or herself.  Conflicts also escalate and icy conversations are the temperature of exchanges.  Both partners feel lonely, disconnected and unloved, because, in fact, they are disconnected emotionally.  Emotional disconnectedness affects all aspects of married life, from decision-making to love-making.

Couples would do well to learn to listen for bids from their partners and employ “turn toward” responses.  Marriage partners who want to protect and nurture their relationship should make it a habit to offer daily bids for affection and closeness.

When was the last time you took her flowers?  When was the last time you gave him a sustained kiss and told him how much you love him?

Dr. Bill Mitcham is the Director/Therapist at The Marriage Maintenance Center in Davidson.   Contact him at