During the course of a day, partners make requests for connection, what psychologist and mathematician John Gottman of the Gottman Institute calls bids. A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. They can come in all forms – verbal, non-verbal, physical, sexual, intellectual, humorous, serious, in the form of a question or statement or comment. Non-verbal bids can include affectionate touching (a squeeze), facial expressions (sticking out your tongue), playful touching (tickling), affiliating gestures (opening a door), and vocalizing (giggling).

In response to a bid, the other partner can turn towards, turn against, or turn away.

  • Turning towards means engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid, for an example by descriptively answering your partner’s question about how your day was.
  • Turning against means explicitly rejecting the bid, for an example by saying you don’t feel like talking about your day.
  • Turning away means either not responding or responding minimally and continuing doing whatever they were doing, like saying “Fine” and continuing to watch TV.

Using the results of a 1990 study observing 130 newlywed couples interacting in a lab-turned-faux-B&B on the University of Washington campus, Gottman made an interesting discovery. At the six-year follow-up mark, couples that were still together had had a turn-towards-bids rate of 86%; divorced couples had had a rate of just 33%.

Caveat emptor – although even some reputable papers (like the Atlantic) tout this result as the secret to making marriages last, note that the study is purely correlational and establishes neither a cause-and-effect relationship (difficult to show) nor a predictive relationship (less difficult, but as far as I know, Gottman never extended the study to do any out-of-sample testing of the model). Nevertheless, the purported strength of the connection between the dependent variable of the turn-towards-bids rate and the independent variable of marital well-being is instructive.

Assuming there’s some degree of causation here, how can you increase your own turn-towards-bid rate? Gottman says that the most toxic of the “turning” responses is not actually turning against – this is still some engagement, and leaves room for further conversation and negotiation – but turning away, which can happen due to an unintentional miss of the connection attempt. Step zero to avoiding such misses is of course cultivating general awareness and attention and thereby leaving room for your partner to even make bids for your attention in the first place. If your nose is constantly buried in Instagram or your ears are reveling in the latest Planet Money podcast, you’re not in a postion to connect with your partner at all. The next step after paying attention to your partner is to become more proficient in recognizing bids. The Gottman Institute has a helpful list of sample minor bids for connection here.

According to Gottman, bids can get far more complex, to the point of being “nearly indecipherable.” And as the bids get complex, the process of turning towards those bids can also get more nuanced. At it’s essence, however, turning towards starts with paying attention and being attuned to your partner. And this is the life’s work of a healthy relationship.