Marriage is complicated. Even with the constraints of children, societal pressure, and family commitments, marriages frequently end in divorce. Some experts even argue that human beings are not hard-wired to stay married to the same person “until death do us part.”
Yet we take the vow. We say the words in front of our families and our God. And we mean it.
So how do we handle it when the inevitable struggles happen?
Well, one prominent national therapist, John Gottman, offers seven principles for what to do in that situation.
Today we look at the third principle: turn toward each other instead of away.
It’s not (necessarily) a big vacation
One of the ways married couples try to turn toward each other when they are struggling is to take a big romantic vacation. While this might work, it is not the sort of “turning toward” that Gottman is talking about.
Instead, Gottman points out that in the many little things we do together – shopping, the dishes, yard work – there are a series of small “turning towards” that we each do. We offer a joke, share something beautiful we see, or thoughtfully get the other person an item to help them be more comfortable or do the work more easily.
Gottman calls these kind gestures “bids” and indicates that couples habitually offer bids to each other quite frequently.
Because of the humdrum monotony of our daily lives, we sometimes stop offering each other any bids at all. We forget to tell each other that we look nice in that particular outfit, or that we appreciate the way they handle conflicts with the neighbor. We fail to notice a new haircut, or to thank them for the extra effort they put into cleaning a room of the house.
In some cases, a big vacation does help turn the heat back up in a relationship, because it gives us space from our normal routine to see each other again, and remember why we thought a lifetime relationship with this person would work out in the first place.
We often reject or ignore our partner’s kindness or attention
The problem is that sometimes our anger or our frustration prevents us from seeing the bid. Sometimes we are just angry, and we see the bid but we reject it.
If we are on a ladder and our spouse brings a drink of water, we might protest that we don’t want to come down. We might say that what we really need is the phillips head #2 screwdriver.
If, at the end of a long day, we have our head in the dishwasher prying out a fallen fork, our partner snapping us with a towel might not be the romantic gesture he wished it to be.
Or sometimes we dismiss a compliment because we feel it is insincere or is about to be followed by some sort of a request. We know a child might compliment you before asking for money. Likewise, a spouse might use a compliment as a lead-in to a chore that needs to be done, or for a sort of physical intimacy that one tiny compliment just doesn’t spark.
In short, there are lots of things keeping us from seeing these bids.
We should acknowledge every bid
The act of “turning toward” in Gottman’s explanation, involves being intentional about recognizing these bids.
First, we must work to make more intentional bids for each other’s favor. We can’t just wait for the perfect moment to come up. You can construct a list of things you love or admire about your partner, and share one a day. By doing this, you don’t have to wait for “the right moment” or “catch them in the act” of doing something admirable. You are walking around with a ready-made list. Then if you do find something to praise in the moment, you can do that too.
Second, we must be intentional about looking for and acknowledging each other’s bids. This can be setting aside a special time each day just to be with each other, or leaving little notes, or even texting from work and anticipating a result.
We can even revisit the bid after it all went south. “I’m sorry I rejected the water you brought me. I was hot and tired up there on the ladder. I appreciate that you were thinking of me, thank you.”
Even a belated acknowledgement goes a long way for your partner – and for you.
Do you have a challenging relationship problem that is costing you sleep, or robbing you of your sense of independence? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment. You can use the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
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