The room is packed, there is a palpable tension. Out the front is a man in a loud suit and a louder voice scanning the crowd. ‘Do I hear $700,000?’ he asks. ‘$700,000!’ comes the reply. The auctioneer acknowledges the bid with a flourish.
In the world of relationship research, bids of a different type are extremely important to the health of a successful relationship.
A client, Ashleigh was shocked when her partner announced that they should break up. However, upon further questioning we could see a pattern of communication which pointed to problems in the relationship. For example, when her partner Mark would get enthusiastic about something “wow, you won’t believe what happened to me at work today” Ashleigh mocked him in a deadpan voice “yeah right, I’m sure it was amazing,” which she believed was funny. In session, however, Ashleigh could see that over the long term this may have eroded Mark’s confidence. She also realized with hindsight, that when he asked her to consider couple counselling, she didn’t take it seriously, not recognising what was going on for him.
One of the most fundamental human needs is to belong and to connect with others. In order to connect emotionally we share information through what we say and what we do — a question, a look, a touch, or any behaviour that reaches out to another person. “Bidding for attention” is a term coined by John Gottman, a well-known US relationship researcher to describe this behaviour. He discovered through many years of observing couples and their relationships that in responding to bids, people tend to fall into one of three patterns.
They can turn towards the bid – acknowledge the question and reply in a positive way. To Mark’s comment, Ashleigh may have stopped what she was doing and replied enthusiastically “Tell me about it!”
They can turn against the bid – acknowledge the question and reply in a negative way.
This is what Ashleigh routinely did.
Finally, they can turn away from the bid – when people reply, but don’t engage with what you’ve said, they ignore it. Ashleigh may have responded to Mark’s comment “did you remember to pick up the dry cleaning today?”
For years, relationship researchers struggled to find out what the crucial elements of a successful relationship were, previously thinking that the amount of self disclosure (i.e., discussing your own thoughts and feelings with your partner) was the key. But Gottman discovered that he could predict in 15 minutes with 90% accuracy whether the relationship was doomed through analyzing bids and their responses .
Bids are important in any relationship, not just intimate relationships and research indicates that children from families where parents turn toward each other are more attentive and more likely to perform better at school. Siblings who turned towards one another in conversations are more likely to have supportive relationships and in the workplace, teams who “turn toward” each other outperform others. Gottman has even worked out a ratio: Five positive (turning toward) responses to every negative (turning away/turning against) responses is likely to produce a happy long-lasting partnership.
As Gottman states “It’s not the high drama and grand passions that make or break our relationships. It is the small stuff – constantly throughout the day.”
The bidding in relationships may not be as nerve racking as bidding at a house auction, but acknowledging the bid is just as important!