Start Listening (And Be Heard)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of Dr. John Gottman, a well-known relationship psychologist, he formulated the idea of “bids.” In relationships, people make bids to their partners. A bid can sound like, “Come look at this bird outside!” or, “Guess what happened at work today?” or simply, “Come here, babe.” The point is that a bid is a request for presence or connection in some way. To respond, their partners can have one of three reactions to their bids: turning away, turning towards, or turning against.
Turning away: “Not right now, I’m busy.”
Turning towards: “Okay, coming!” or, “What happened? Tell me!”
Turning against: “Who cares about birds?” or, “Leave me alone!”
You get the idea.
Statistically, happy couples turn towards each other’s bids about 80% of the time. Any less than that, and things tend to feel strained.
The other day, I experienced a collision of two bids. I made a bid to my partner at the exact same time he made a bid to me. So, what happens when two people have a need to be seen or met at the same time for different things? Well, here’s what happened:
My partner has just moved into a new house. We spent the whole weekend moving him, unpacking his things, organizing the house, and it was a lot of labor. Even though I did not move into the house with him, I spent almost the entire weekend helping him move. (The Monica Gellar in me was too excited to get everything as clean and organized as possible.)
The double sink in the adorable new kitchen had accumulated a lot of stains and waste from days of being in a flurry of making food and being in action. (You know how sinks can get.) I had been doing a lot of the cleaning that weekend so that he could spend more time organizing his new space. I didn’t mind doing this, and so I took a solid amount of time to clean the sink more thoroughly, which turned out to be a surprisingly disgusting job that required more elbow grease than expected. After really getting in there, I salvaged it.
My partner came into the kitchen, and I was so excited to show him the sink. “Look!” I said, “the sink is finally clean! Look at this beauty!” I gleamed.
“Thank you,” he said quickly, “and guess what?” he asked excitedly, in a completely different energy.
“What?” I asked, the slightest bit deflated.
“I figured out what that sound wave was on the mural we saw yesterday! The mural was of Ras G, and the sound wave was a tag of his signature line that’s in most of his songs! I knew I recognized that tag,” he explained with pride. In case you can’t tell, my dude is a musician.
“Oh, that’s cool,” I said, but I was only half hearing him. The other half of my brain was saying, Yo, can you just get for a moment how gross this sink was and how much effort I put into cleaning it?!
He returned to his bedroom, where he had been unpacking. And there, left with myself in the kitchen, it clicked: oh my god. We both just made a bid at the same time, and both of us needed a turn-toward.
The funniest part of this whole situation was that it was over a sink and a mural. That’s it. That’s all it takes to build small resentments, interactions about menial things. But it’s not menial if it piles on over time.
I walked into his bedroom. “You want to hear something funny?” I asked. He nodded. “So there’s this concept of bids in a relationships,” I went on, and described Gottman’s theory. I explained what bids meant, and the three possible responses. “So, I realized what just happened back there in the kitchen. We BOTH made bids at the same time, and we both needed a turn-towards. But neither of us saw the other’s need, or had the capacity to give it, while needing it from the other. Do you see what I mean?” I asked. He laughed.
“Ooooooh! That makes so much sense!” he said with a big grin. “We were in completely different worlds and then we collided!”
“Exactly. So,” I went on, “in response to your bid, I’m shocked that you actually recognized that sound wave. How on Earth did you know? That seems like a total gift that you’d be able to read that,” I said. He lit up a little.
“Yeah! I just put two and two together. I’m a huge fan of Ras G, and it just made sense to me.”
“Wow. That’s amazing,” I said, giving him a genuine acknowledgment.
“Thank you. And thank you for cleaning the sink, I know it was really gross,” he reciprocated, looking into my eyes and nodding.
“It was! So gross. Thank you!” I laughed.
From that point onwards, having explained the concept of bids to him, our understanding of our communication and each other’s needs is more nuanced, and therefore richer.
The more we — you, me, everyone — take time to understand ourselves and each other, relationships are deeper, and much less complicated or tense. Little resentments have nowhere to hide, and don’t build up. Knowledge and willingness are transmuted into ease and love. And the understanding of bids, and the need for yours or your partner’s frequent turn-toward, is a great addition to the toolbox.