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It’s the small things in life

Tracey gets off the phone to her friend. It sounds like it has been a heavy conversation and she sighs heavily and looks in my direction as she puts her phone down…. 

I am hanging out laundry to dry whilst listening to an audiobook on my phone. Tracey wanders in and squeezes my hand….

Tracey is mid way through a batch of emails and I walk past singing a tuneless and barely recognizable cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Have I told you lately that I love you’…..

We are both working from home one day and Trace asks if I want to walk the dog with her before starting work….


These are all examples of what relationship guru John Gottman calls bids for emotional connection. He describes these bids as attempts from one partner to another for attention, affirmation or affection. They can be either verbal or non-verbal cues and often have a secondary deeper meaning that lies beneath them. The sub-text is often something along the lines of “Are you with me? “Do I matter to you”, “Notice me” or “I want to be with you”.

When our partner makes an emotional bid towards us there are 3 main ways in which we can respond:

  • We can turn towards them by positively responding
  • We can turn away from them by largely ignoring them
  • We can turn against them by actively rejecting or pushing back

The analogy that Gottman uses is that bids can be considered within the context of an emotional bank account – you can either make deposits or withdrawals into that account. Similarly Brene Brown in her book ‘Dare to Lead’ uses the analogy that trust in a relationship is like of a jar of marbles. She argues that seemingly small everyday acts of kindness and vulnerability build trust one marble at a time and strengthen our connection. She argues that trust in relationships is “earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention”

Relationship advice often focuses on the importance of rituals of connection such as a regular date night, but it is easy to live parallel lives in between those points of connection. With busy, demanding lives many of us choose a divide and conquer approach to life, that gives few opportunities for interaction. Our bids are ways of looking for everyday points where our lives can intersect.

It is obvious, but nonetheless important, to recognise that even when we are in the same same proximity together, it is not the same thing as being present with one another. We can be together and not initiating with one another, or at least together and not noticing one another.

Living more Mindfully

Mindfulness is something of a buzzword that is freely banded around. Brene Brown prefers the more accessible term paying attention. A mindful relationship is essentially one where you practice the art of noticing your partner in the present moment – particularly by paying attention to their efforts to connect with you. Turning towards our partners is about choosing to respond with kindness and interest. It can be costly to choose such a response as it is likely to take more time, energy and thought to turn towards our partners. The benefits however are clear – in terms of building connection, trust, intimacy and even sensuality. 

The motto that comes from both Gottman and Brown’s work is ‘The Small Things often”. Small, intentional moments hold more weight than isolated, extravagant gestures when it comes to the emotional health of our relationships.

In fact Gotmann’s research suggests that couples that persistently ignore or turn away from their partners bids are potentially on the road to relationship breakdown. In a 6 year longitudinal and observational study Gottman found that couples that stayed together turned towards each other’s bids 86% of the time whilst couples whose relationship had broken down averaged just 33%.

The types of bids that we are more likely to initiate or to notice from our partners can relate to our Languages of Love . I find myself looking for words of affirmation from my partner Tracey, whilst I may miss her bids, which relate say to acts of service. Whilst she definitely needs bids relating to physical touch – which don’t necessarily come naturally to me!

Just as a quick aside there are no prizes for guessing some of the leading causes of partners missing each others bids… children, work stress, tiredness and of course the curse of the screen. That’s one for a whole other blog some time.

How have you tended to measure the effort and energy that you and your partner put into your relationship? It’s easy to focus on how you have celebrated special occasions, the presents given and received, the holidays or weekends away, maybe even the amount of sex that you are having. Perhaps it’s time to focus on the myriad of tiny moments each and every day. These seemingly insignificant moments turn into something of immense importance

Consider having a go at the following

Find a day when you will be spending lots of time together and try an experiment:

-Pay attention to all the bids that your partner makes towards you (what do you notice about the type of bids they make? Are there any that you might usually miss?)

-Actively turn towards each of their bids with kindness and interest. Ask yourself what might be the sub-text of any bids and try to respond to that.

-Attempt making some different types of bids towards your partner (are there any that they tend not to notice?)

Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach & philanthropist. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a founder of the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in Post 16 education in which he taught and managed Social Science Subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

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