How to be happier in your relationship: emotional bids

All too often I hear from men and women who are unhappy in their relationship. Most of us have been there. When one feels unhappy, bored or annoyed early in a relationship, it’s often easy enough to fold one’s cards, break up and move on. In long-term relationships or marriage, it’s nowhere near as easy to experience or to exit. There may be families, vows, children, dogs, cats, or homes to consider, not to mention the enormous feelings involved and the heaviness of “what to do” weighing on one’s shoulders. I’ve stood at this cross-roads and perhaps some of you have, too (or are right now).

There are some relationships that are so damaging , dishonest or abusive that most people would agree are best to bid goodbye to. But for most of us who have been at this point, the choice to stay or go was or is not so clear cut. Whether or not you are at this point now, I’d like to introduce you to the idea of emotional bids.

An “emotional bid” is a concept developed by Dr. John Gottman and described in one of his books (“The Relationship Cure“, which I highly recommend). This book, like his others, is based on his decades of researching marriages and identifying the communication and listening patterns that either help to keep couples together or drive them apart.

Emotional bids are the ways in which we all “bid for” (or try to get) attention, love, approval or reassurance that we are safe in a relationship. They are also the ways in which we express our love, liking, lust and admiration for others. Problems arise or are made worse, however, when we stop being able to “read” our partner’s emotional bids or when we deliver our own bids in convulated or confusing ways.

If you’re at a crossroads and you are feeling annoyed with, distant from or avoidant of your significant other – and you have it in you to try a little harder – consider the following:

- When you catch yourself feeling annoyed, try to ask yourself in what way he or she “bids” for your love. How do they try to get you to notice them? Is something that you perceive as annoying actually a way that they are trying to connect? If so, can you find a compassionate or loving part of yourself that can appreciate that and love them for that? Can you breathe a sigh of patience and understanding?

- In what ways does your partner try to express their love or affection? Do they make you coffee in the morning? Leave the porch light on for you? Not nag when you come home late (again)? Feed the dogs or cats more often than you? Take the dogs on a morning walk and let you sleep in? Rub your shoulders after a hard day? Give you your space when you need it?

- When you feel hurt or rejected or as if your partner isn’t noticing your attempts to connect, might it be that they just don’t see them anymore? Can you find other ways to express that you are trying your hardest, that you want to see if you can make it work, or that – although this is a rough time for you as a couple – you are committed to trying hard to make it work? That you’re in this as a team?

Couples who stay together for decades will almost always tell you that there were times that they wanted to throw the towel in, or came very close to separating or divorcing. I’ve known couples who have been enormously hurt by flirtations, affairs, boredom, distance, shifts in priorities, or feeling as though one or both people have utterly changed. As many people before me have said, “Every marriage has its betrayals.” As far as I can tell, it is not a question of if two people will have enormous hurt between them, but when - and how they will choose to respond to it.

I believe that when we experience hurt or annoyance, we can often find compassion or love within us to change our perception of the person or the situation. We can remind ourselves “he or she is just trying to reach out to me… and I love him/her for that” or “these things happen after X years together, and I may not know how at the moment, but I know we will figure this out… breathe deeply.”

This week, try two things if you are in a relationship:

1) Each day, try to remind yourself of positive things about your partner such as his or her qualities that first attracted you or made you fall in love

2) Each day, try to recognize the ways in which you try to show love for each other. Try to find the ways that he or she is reaching out to you, and try to reach out with love in clearer ways to your partner.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at