Connection is key in every relationship, but day-to-day life—from work, kids, and chores to our attachment to our phones—can make it difficult to regularly communicate and sync up with our partner. When a relationship hits a snag, it’s not always clear what we need to do to cultivate a healthier and closer connection. But maybe all it takes is paying a bit more attention to what the Gottman Institute calls “bids for connection.”
The phrase “bids for connection” was coined by Drs. John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute, which takes a science- and research-based approach to relationship counseling. In his book, The Relationship Cure, John Gottman writes that he’s found that the most successful couples he studied were the ones who simply were more attentive to each other—and he refers to “bids” as “the fundamental unit of emotional communication.” Essentially, they are requests to connect and can be communicated verbally, physically, or sexually. They can be significant small, or funny or serious, but essentially, they all ask the same question: “Can you pay attention to me?”
“Bids for connection are foundational to the emotional health of a relationship,” says Rebecca Phillips, a Gottman-trained licensed professional counselor and operator of Mend Modern Therapy. “Bids strengthen the relationship by adding value that builds over time. As the relationship gets stronger, the better you and your partner can withstand challenges that will inevitably arise in the relationship.”
Each time you turn toward your partner’s bid, Phillips says, you’re essentially making a deposit into your emotional bank account. Each time you turn away, however, you essentially make a withdrawal.
“Turning away from your partner’s bids creates distance and disconnection,” she says. “This is incredibly damaging to the health of the relationship.”
It can be tricky to spot a bid for connection since you and your partner are probably doing it all the time without even knowing it. For example, when your partner sends you a funny GIF via text, you might smile and respond with a simple “cute” or shrug it off and say nothing at all. Maybe from your perspective the funny GIF is no big deal. However, the funny GIF is actually your partner sending you a bid to connect.
You might think, “But I’m busy! I can’t respond to every GIF!” It’s one thing if you’re occasionally swamped at work and really can’t respond, but if you consistently turn away from your partner’s attempt to connect, your intimacy will slowly disintegrate over time.
“The distance that is caused by turning away or against is more responsible for dissolution of relationships than infidelity,” Phillips says. “The act of turning toward your partner’s bids builds a foundation of trust, emotional connection, and satisfaction.”
In the above example, simply shooting a back an “LOL” or another funny GIF at your partner can be enough to keep the connection solid.
If you’re not sure how to turn toward a bid for connection—or what a bid for connection might sound like—here are more examples to consider.
Your partner asks about your day
“Arguably, the most common bid for connection is asking your partner how their day was,” Phillips says. “If you ask your partner how their day was, you may just get a short answer of good, bad, or OK. But if you ask your partner to tell you about their day, you’re essentially asking them to turn toward your bid. Asking open ended questions helps facilitate the bid sequence.”
Turning towards: If your partner asks how your day was, Phillips says it’s important to turn toward their bid by thoughtfully responding and opening the discussion by asking them about theirs. “Showing interest and keeping the conversation going is key. Reflect on different parts of what they tell you and ask questions to further the conversation.”
Similarly, when sharing your day, your partner might also talk about their own. If they had a hard day, ask them why and how they are feeling. Ask them how you can help them feel better. If they had a good day, show your support—ask them why it was so great, and show them you’re happy they had a great day by hugging them and smiling.
Turning away: One-word answers like, “Fine,” “Good,” “OK,” or not elaborating in general.
Your partner lets out an exasperated sigh
You’re sitting on the couch after work and your partner lets out a sigh that signals something’s up.
“If your partner lets out an exasperated sigh, you could turn toward their bid by asking them if they’re OK or inquiring about what’s on their mind,” Phillips says. “Turning toward them means that you show interest and ask questions.”
Turning towards: “Are you OK? What’s on your mind?” “Do you want to share with me what’s going on?” “That doesn’t sound good. Tell me about it.”
Turning away: Rolling your eyes and asking, “What’s wrong now?”
Your partner hugs you
“Physical touch is a subtle, but important bid for connection,” Phillips says. “If your partner walks up and puts their arms around you while you’re busy with another task, you may not think much of it. But pausing whatever it is that you’re doing so that you can be fully present with your partner is a powerful way to turn toward their bid. Your response will influence your partner’s feelings at that moment. Your response may leave them feeling connected or rejected.”
Turning towards: Receive their hug and/or give some other means of physical contact. Maybe kiss them or snuggle them. Be fully present with them as you hold them, even if it’s just for a moment or two. You might even ask them if they need anything else (although most times, the reassurance of your hug will do).
Turning away: Shrug off the hug. Tell them, “I’m not in the mood.”
Your partner shoots you some flirty eye contact
Flirting is still important in your relationship whether it’s been two years or 20 years. An example Phillips shares involves you and your partner are both getting ready for bed. You’re standing at the sink brushing your teeth when your partner emerges from the shower.
“You make eye contact while you’re busy doing other things, but there is a moment where you can decide to carry on as usual or give your partner a flirty look,” she says. “The flirty look will likely reassure your partner that you still find them attractive, which will ultimately make them feel more connected and secure in the relationship.”
Turning towards: You make flirty eye contact with them back. You might even affectionately give their arm a squeeze or pat their buttocks. You could say, “You’re so hot/beautiful/handsome.” If you’re in the mood for sex, you might even kiss them and let them know. If not, even shooting a flirty smile is a great way to connect.
Turning away: You avoid their eye contact and/or disregard it and simply carry on with what you’re doing.
Your partner is venting or sharing frustrations over something that happened at work
Venting is primarily used as a way for most of us to get something off our chest and serves as an opportunity for us to be heard and seen. While it’s easy to see it as our partner simply complaining, it’s an opportunity for us to show support and empathy.
Turning towards: “Instead of trying to calm your partner down, you validate their frustration,” Phillips says. “That may look like ribbing on your partner’s boss together or the unreasonable customer they had to deal with. Empathizing and laughing with your partner will help them feel safe enough to share their feelings with you. And it will make them feel better and less alone in a frustrating situation.”
Turning away: Telling your partner to “calm down” or invalidating them, like saying, “It’s not a big deal. Cheer up.” Giving them unsolicited advice. Or simply nodding your head and saying, “Mmmhmm, that sucks” as you look at your phone.
“Every day that you spend with your partner includes bids for connection,” Phillips says. “Look out for your partner sharing a story or concern, sending a text message, attempting physical affection, or even a simple, exasperated sigh.”