Hello, friends! I hope you’re doing well and enjoying your life. I’m recovering from a minor injury from Aerial Yoga this weekend but enjoying the fact that there’s finally sunshine and warm weather here in Michigan.

I see a lot of couples for therapy and there are several issues that are common but one seems almost universal: they stop tending to each other. They stop paying attention to each other’s “bids for connection”. That term comes from Gottman who is very much the Godfather of couples’ therapy. It’s actually a husband and wife team but he does most of the speaking. Their website is a powerful tool with lots of articles on building a marriage that you love.

What is a bid for connection?

Bids for connection are the little ways that we reach out to connect with each other. Asking your partner for a kiss is a bid for connection. Saying “I love you” can be a bid for connection. Making their favorite meal, telling them about your new favorite podcast, and complimenting them are all bids for connection.

Trust me, when my husband tells me about this awesome new armor set in Dark Souls for the fourth time and asks me to come look at it, I don’t come to look because I’m fascinated. But he is important to me, so what he brings to me has to be as important to me as he is. He knows it’s nerdy! His wanting to show me is the vulnerability that makes a marriage work.

We so frequently make bids for connection and so often they’re missed. And bids for connection are not limited to romantic relationships. I’ve seen memes circulating parenting groups reminding us that if we don’t pay attention when kiddos show us the “little things” that are important to them, they won’t bother trying to share the “big things” later. There’s some truth to this.

My undergraduate degree is in psychology and I remember well learning (in the class “Learning and Cognition) that Thorndike’s Law of Effect tells us that every time we engage in a behavior (like sharing our feelings with a friend or lover) we are either more likely or less likely to do it again based on the reaction we get from it. For example, if I tell my husband that I think he looks handsome and he brushes me off and scoffs, I’m less likely to tell him again. If instead he thanks me and gives me a peck on the cheek, I’m more likely to tell him again later. This can easily keep us stuck in cycles. When we stop engaging because we felt shut down, it’s really hard to open back up. If I need to hear from my husband that my ideas are cool but every time I tell him about my sewing he shuts me down, I’m going to stop sharing and now we’ve lost a critical place in our marriage to cheer each other on and show respect for each other as individuals. Sometimes it’s not long after that that I stop telling him he looks handsome because it’s risky and last time I took a risk I wasn’t rewarded. Maybe from there, he stops complimenting me because I’m not completing him and he’s hurt about it and doesn’t see a need to spoil someone who doesn’t spoil him.

If that seems like a far stretch, talk to some people who are divorced or who have gone from happy marriages to unhappy ones. I once had a client say that complacency is the biggest enemy of marriage and he was spot on. For most people, problems in relationships do not come up all at once. It happens as a decay over time and it’s hard to pinpoint where it started. Think about how a river wears away stone: one drop at a time. No single drop seems threatening but they all contribute to that path the water wears in the rock.

Pay attention to your reactions

Pay attention to how you respond to the people you love. It’s part of our DNA, our programming, to reach out to others in our social group to make sure things are OK. It’s like reaching out and touching someone to make sure they’re still there. Let your loved ones know you’re there by responding kindly to their bids for connection. Here are some fun ways to encourage bids for connection to make sure they keep happening:

  • Practice just noticing bids for connection. It can be sharing a hobby, a thought, a feeling. Anytime someone is being vulnerable with you, they’re making a bid for connection. It can be asking if you saw a news article or a TV show. It can be showing you a new purchase or telling you about a book they read. Just practice seeing these bids for what they are.
  • Practice being grateful that your friend, partner, child, etc. chose to come to you with this exciting thing. There is a ton of intimacy in being someone’s “go-to person” (the person they can’t wait to tell when something good happens or the person they know will comfort them when things go wrong). Try to remind yourself that it’s an honor whether they’re coming to you because they got the job or because their fantasy football league is doing well.
  • Work on eliminating dismissive language. It’s so tempting to say “get over it”, “that’s not a big deal”, “grow up”, and things like that. It’s easy to feel that because something isn’t important to us, it shouldn’t be important to others but that’s not fair. We are all unique with different interests, sensitives, and thought patterns. That’ worth celebrating, not punishing. Our differences are what make life and relationships rewarding. If it’s important to them, it needs to be as important to you as they are. Work on not negating their feelings. It doesn’t have to make sense that they feel that way, just know that they do, and connect to what you’d want if you felt that way. Too many people hear “well I wouldn’t feel that way so neither should you” and that shuts down a bid for connection. When someone comes to you with an emotion or a hurt, they’re making a bid for connection. Respond with empathy and they’ll know you’re a safe person to keep connecting with.

Good luck, friends! This is an important lesson but your relationships will grow exponentially for it. Sending you lots of good vibes for the remainder of the week!

Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.