Don't Ignore Emotional Bids If You Want to Feel Closer to Your Partner
Sometimes, communicating with a partner can be effortless. It's like having a secret language. You finish each other's sentences. You read each other's minds. But this is a description of a typical scene from a romantic comedy. Real life rarely looks like a choreographed sequence between actors on a film set.
Part of what makes communication seem effortless is how much partners pay attention to each other's "bids," a concept based on research from the Gottman Institute, a Seattle company co-founded by marriage therapists John and Julie Schwartz Gottman.
"A bid for connection is anything you say or do in an attempt to connect with your partner," said Jodie Milton, a relationship and intimacy coach at Practical Intimacy in Australia. "Asking your partner about their day, showing them a funny meme or putting your arms around them for a hug are all examples of bids."
If you're having trouble connecting with your partner or want to improve your communication, learning to recognize bids can help build trust and intimacy.
Your partner knows what you're thinking, right?
Believing you should be able to anticipate each other's needs is a "recipe for relationship discord and disconnection," said Tom Murray, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist at A Path to Wellness Integrative Psychiatry in Greensboro, North Carolina. "Mind reading is, essentially, a form of entitlement. When this is the case, there's less communication between partners."
As with other forms of communication, making a bid requires vulnerability. There's always a possibility of rejection, so you might resort to "mind reading" to avoid being vulnerable with your partner, Murray explained.
Can you tell when your partner is making a bid?
"[Bids] can be subtle, such as simply expressing a reaction to something you're reading in the newspaper in earshot of your partner, or something much more overt, such as, 'I need a hug,'" Murray said.
Partners can misinterpret bids even when accompanied by words. For instance, your partner might say, "It's been a while since we last went out to eat." You might interpret their comment to mean "It's great we're spending less money on food" when, in fact, your partner is trying to tell you, "I'd like to spend some quality time together or I want to take you on a date."
Nonverbal emotional bids are harder to grasp, especially if your partner is looking down at their phone or thinking about their to-do list.
"Sometimes they just don't realize that you were attempting to connect," Milton said. "Emotional bids are like opening the door for connection. When your partner turns away, it's like they're closing the door in your face, which can really hurt."
What does your partner do when you try to connect?
Three ways partners respond to bids are turning toward, turning away and turning against, Murray explained. Turning toward means acknowledging the bid and moving toward your partner.
"The strongest relationships turn toward their partner's bids, which helps to build moments of intimacy and connection," Milton said.
Turning away is when you ignore or miss the bid, even if unintentional.
"Say a girlfriend sends a topless photo to her partner, but the partner doesn't respond," Murray said. "The partner sees and likes the picture but doesn't communicate that to the girlfriend."
Without acknowledgement, the girlfriend might assume her partner doesn't appreciate her bid.
Responses where a partner is turning against you can sound combative, defensive or belittling such as, "Why can't you give me space!" Murray said. This relationship dynamic is particularly destructive and puts the couple at greater risk for separation.
As Milton explained, repeatedly rejecting or ignoring bids can lead to "negative sentiment override, wherein we perceive any interaction with our partner as negative, regardless of actual intention."
Over time, partners are likely to make fewer bids. The result can be less trust, emotional safety and relationship satisfaction, and increased resentment, criticism and conflict.
How can you give clearer bids?
Bids are more likely to be rejected when they're ill-timed. Avoid making a bid if your partner is preoccupied with a task or has just walked through the door. Instead, have a conversation with your partner about when they might be most receptive to bids.
Milton suggested using a combination of words and physical contact to get your partner's attention.
"Try placing your hand on their shoulder or their back before asking a question or telling them something," she said.
Consider your partner's love language. If they enjoy quality time, you can suggest going for a walk together when you get off work.
Murray suggested expressing your needs and wants by using positive and affirming language. Instead of complaining to your partner, "You don't hold my hand like you used to," Murray recommended saying, "I miss holding your hand and would love to do that more. I feel more connected to you when we hold hands."
How can you be more receptive to your partner?
"When receiving bids, it's important to give your partner your full attention," Milton said.
Put aside what you're doing and turn toward your partner. You can respond by smiling, giving an enthusiastic answer, thanking your partner for being thoughtful or complimenting them.
Not every bid requires a grand gesture. What's important is using your words and body language to convey that you appreciate your partner and value their presence, Milton added. If you can't be present in the moment, suggest another time to connect.
At their core, emotional bids are attempts at connection or what Murray called "fertilizers for vulnerability." There's always a chance of being rejected. Still, this shouldn't stop you from giving and receiving bids as often as you can.
As Murray noted, "They're too powerful to miss."