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Is 'Bidding' The One Behavior That Could Save Your Relationship?

Jancee Dunn
June 18, 2017
Jancee Dunn
Written by
Photo by Javier Díez
June 18, 2017

Jancee Dunn’s latest book, How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids, is a candid account of what it’s like to have kids and want your relationship back. Here, Jancee has adapted some tips from the book.

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Pioneering couples therapists say that one mindful exercise can have a huge impact on your relationship: Look for the good. This means voicing what the Gottmans call the "three A's": affection, appreciation, and admiration.

During the quotidian moments of life, they found, couples should have a 20:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. During times of conflict, meanwhile, the magic ratio is 5:1. Positive interactions can be the tiniest of gestures: a smile, making eye contact, nodding to show you’re listening, a quick joke.

What is your ratio of nice to neutral or negative interactions?

This game-changing little ratio forced my husband Tom and me to pay attention to the tone of our daily interactions: How often were we actually being nice to each other? For the first week I kept a loose count; I noticed that a dispiriting number of our interactions were administrative: Were we running low on milk? Did you buy shin guards for our daughter’s soccer class? Our positive interactions were mostly confined to fond chats about our daughter after she had gone to bed. We were fading as a twosome, like the holiday photo cards we receive from friends: Once they became parents, they vanished from the frame. Only the children remained, while the parents are the Disappeared.

I began counting as "positive" interactions things like Tom’s offer to spray my computer keys with compressed air. I worriedly phoned Julie Gottman and asked if one of our many neutral interactions could be labeled as positive if we’re pleasant about it. "Let’s say I tell my husband, ‘Here’s your coffee,’ but I say it in, you know, a nice tone of voice?" I told her.

She considered for a moment. "That would be considered positive, yes," she says. I sigh with relief.

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Can "bidding" strengthen your bond when it feels like "the kids" are all you talk about?

Still, our feeble ratio of positives was a warning that we have to strengthen our daily bond. One of John Gottman’s best-known findings is that successful couples frequently and consistently responded to their partner’s requests for connection, which he termed "bids."

When Tom is reading the paper, for example, he occasionally comments, "Hmm, that’s interesting." This is a "bid," a sometimes-subtle request for attention. If I reply, "Oh, what are you reading?" this response is what Gottman calls "turning toward" my partner—I have given him the encouragement he is seeking. If I ignore his bid, I am "turning away" from Tom. It can be hard to take note of these bids—especially when children seemingly lie in wait to release a volley of their own bids the moment they see you sit down. A spouse’s bidding can also be brushed off as needy or annoying, but often what they want is simply a quick connection: a brief chat, a smile, a reassuring word.

In a now-famous study of newlywed couples, John Gottman found that these seemingly insignificant bidding exchanges had a huge impact on marital happiness. After a six-year follow-up, he learned that the couples who had divorced had demonstrated "turn-toward bids" only a third of the time—while those still together had "turn-toward bids" almost 90 percent of the time. "All the research shows that being able to turn toward one another, and be there for one another, is what produces happier relationships," Julie Gottman tells me.

As it turns out, bidding can help you, too.

I begin to pay attention to, and identify, bids from Tom that might have slipped by me before. As it turns out, the guy is the human version of clickbait:

Staring through binoculars at our neighbor’s apartment across the street: "Huh."

Examining a coin from his pocket: "Now, that’s something you don’t see every day."

After you actively look for the good things in your spouse, say the Gottmans, build a culture of appreciation by pointing them out.

It’s not enough just to think good things, says Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist. She tells me that giving your mate affectionate comments daily is beneficial for them but also helps you by reducing cortisol, lowering blood pressure, boosting your immune system, and even reducing cholesterol levels.

How important is this habit? Researchers from the University of Georgia found that what distinguishes marriages that last from those that don’t is not necessarily how often couples argue but how they treat each other on a daily basis when they are not bickering. Expressions of gratitude were the "most consistent significant predictor of marital quality."

The power of a simple "thank you," as it turns out, is considerable.

Based on excerpts from How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2017.

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Jancee Dunn author page.
Jancee Dunn

New York Times best-selling author Jancee Dunn grew up in Chatham, New Jersey. She is the author of five books, including a memoir, a children’s book, and Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. Her essay collection, Why Does My Mother Have A Tattoo? was a nominee for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Dunn was a veejay on MTV for five years and an entertainment correspondent on Good Morning America. She writes for many publications, among them the New York Times, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Food & Wine, Smithsonian, and Parents. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the author Tom Vanderbilt, and daughter.