How The 'Little Things' Make Or Break A Relationship

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woman annoyed that her husband is ignoring her bid for attention and playing a video game

He comes home from work exhausted again. He crashes onto the living room sofa, takes a deep breath, and turns on his favorite show. All he wants to do is decompress in silence.

As if on cue, he hears the back door open. His wife is home, and somehow, she's more chipper than ever. As she enters the room and removes her coat, she takes a moment to pause at the front window, saying, “What beautiful weather — it’s just lovely today.”

What should he do next? The answer, according to most relationship advice, may matter more than you think.

Dr. John Gottman has spent his career studying what makes or breaks relationships, and what he has discovered is as practical as it is important. Through his research, he has been able to identify what qualities and practices make a couple of masters of their relationship, as well as what can make a relationship turn into a disaster.

How emotional bids for attention make or break relationships

Gottman found a subtle but significant difference between the masters and disasters that strongly predicts the future of their relationships: in the small, everyday moments of life together, relationship masters are much more responsive to their partner’s attempts to engage with them.

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These attempts at engagement, or emotional bids, are any effort on the part of one partner to connect or get their partner’s attention. These bids can be as glaringly obvious as a direct request for cuddling at bedtime or as subtle as an indirect comment about the weather addressed to no one in particular.

Gottman found that partners who consistently responded positively — or turned toward — each other’s emotional bids or the little things in a relationship were significantly more likely to feel satisfied and stay together over time than those who did not.

In a six-year study of newlyweds, Gottman discovered that couples who stayed together turned toward each other’s emotional bids 86 percent of the time. In contrast, those who went on to divorce turned toward each other’s bids only 33 percent of the time.

Over time, all of the little things in a relationship and seemingly insignificant moments of daily life become something of immense importance.

Gottman identified four different responses that people typically utilize when their partner sends an emotional bid in their direction. Each can support or tear down a relationship’s sense of togetherness and security. We can turn toward our partner, turn enthusiastically toward our partner, turn away from our partner, or turn against our partner.

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In the introductory example, a husband, worn out from his day, receives an emotional bid from his wife when she comments about the weather. He has a choice: He can turn toward his wife with a short and simple “Yes, it is,” acknowledging her bid; he can turn enthusiastically toward her by engaging her in a longer conversation about the day; turn away from her by ignoring the comment; or turn against her by gruffly asking for some peace and quiet.

Although an enthusiastic response to an emotional bid is almost always appreciated, more often than not, a simple acknowledgment of your partner’s bid is enough to deepen your connection. You don’t have to deliver endless energy, attention, and focus on being a relationship master.

How do the little things in a relationship make such a big difference? By consistently turning toward your partner when they reach for you in small ways, you fortify your relationship against the stresses and obstacles of life.

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Essentially, an emotional bid is a small way to ask our partners, “Are you here with me?” or, “Do I matter to you?”

The answer to these questions becomes even more important if there has been previous infidelity or if either partner has a history of trauma.

By receiving a metaphorical “Yes!” to these questions consistently throughout your relationship, you strengthen your trust and connection to each other.

Pay attention to the small ways your partner reaches for you and attempts to connect — intentionally looking for ways to turn toward your partner will help you be more effective in connecting with them. Every time you turn toward your partner in response to an emotional bid, you invest in the health and security of your relationship.

This sense of security, of feeling truly able to know and be known by your partner, created by intentionally and consistently turning toward your partner, deepens your shared sense of intimacy and is correlated with increased marriage satisfaction.

As Dr. Gottman reminds us in his work, it’s the small things done often that make the biggest difference in relationships.

By turning toward your partner’s emotional bids, you safeguard your relationship against disrepair and deepen the love you share.

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Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge is a licensed professional counselor with a focus on relationships, trauma, depression, anxiety, grief/loss, premarital and couples counseling, and family conflict.

This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.