What makes a marriage or long-term relationship work? Especially if the company you're building or your career has your full attention most of the time? You may think it's all about romance such as giving great gifts or planning wonderful celebrations on birthdays and anniversaries. Or you may think it's about great sex and keeping the passion alive.

Not so much. As Amy Alkon notes in an insightful Psychology Today post, thinking you can preserve your relationship with grand gestures on special holidays is "doing the romantic version of cramming for an exam." While that approach may have gotten you through college, it's how you show up throughout the year that will make or break a long-term relationship.

In fact, according to fascinating research by psychologists John Gottman and Janice Driver, it has a lot to do with how couples respond to each other's small bids for attention in everyday life. A small bid for attention may not have anything to do with romance. The Gottman Institute offers 14 examples of small bids for attention and many of them are small requests, such as to help with a simple task. Others are asking for a little bit of interaction, as when your partner wants to tell you about the book he or she is reading, or asks you about your day. Or it may be a bid for approval: "How do I look?" "How's that meal I cooked?"

There are three different ways you (or your partner) can respond to a small bid for attention. The first is what Gottman calls to "turn toward" your partner. You perform the small task you were asked to do, or you listen attentively to the description of the book and maybe ask a couple of questions about it, or, when asked, you tell your partner what kind of day you've had and how you're feeling. A second option is to reject the bid for attention, for example, you say you can't walk the dog right now because you have to make an important phone call. You tell your partner you don't feel like talking about your day, you'd rather veg in front of the TV instead. 

Rejecting a partner's bid for attention isn't great, but it isn't the worst thing you can do because it leaves room for more conversation or negotiation. For example, your partner could ask if the phone call can wait ten minutes while you take out the dog, of if it'll be a quick phone call and you can walk the dog right after. The worst thing, but something we all do sometimes, is to miss the bid for attention altogether. When your partner asks if a meal is all right, you might take that question literally -- yes, it's edible and will satisfy your hunger -- and so you say "It's fine," and move on to something else. But the subtext is that your partner wanted you to show appreciation by complimenting the food and maybe saying thank you for cooking it. If you don't respond to that bid for attention because you missed it, that's what Gottman calls "turning away" from your partner.

Turning away kills relationships.  

How important is it that you respond well to these small bids for attention (and that your partner does the same for you?) Surprisingly important. Six years after observing the newlyweds, Gottman and Driver checked back with them. The ones who were still together had turned toward each other, on average, 86 percent of the time as newlyweds, when faced with a bid for attention. Those who had split up had only turned toward each other an average 33 percent of the time. 

This research feels very relevant to me because I'm a busy writer with a home office and my husband Bill is a musician who is often out performing in the evenings, but during the day is usually home having free time. After hours of conference calls, phone interviews, and pounding out copy, I often feel most like watching Netflix or curling up with a book, but he usually wants to chat about whatever he read or watched online that day. Sometimes it feels deeply wrong to me that when I'm finally done working and could watch a video that I choose, I should instead listen patiently while he describes the videos that fascinate him and not me. So, more often than I should, I reject his attention bid and tell him I don't feel like talking, or don't feel like hearing about whatever he's telling me. 

Fortunately for both of us, Bill is smart about relationships and so if I miss or ignore a bid for attention, he'll call me on it right away, saying something like, "Did you hear what I said? Do you have any response?" And when I reject his bids too often, he calls me on that too, reminding me that he needs my attention and interaction even if I am preoccupied by other things. 

On the other hand, through negotiation, we've learned some workable boundaries. For example, he knows that I won't respond well to repeated bids for attention if I'm deep into a book, and so he's learned when that's the case to leave me alone.

After more than two decades, it's safe to say our relationship is a keeper. And yet, it's important to keep working on this seemingly small thing because no relationship is ever really a done deal. What about you? How do you respond to your partner's small bids for attention? And how does your partner respond to yours?

Published on: Feb 16, 2020
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