The Science of Love

Everything you want to know about love, sex, and marriage

When It Comes to Relationships, the Little Things Count

In love and friendship, we should always “sweat the small stuff.”

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And when it comes to the minor hassles and irritants we face as we go about our daily lives – the spilled coffee, the late bus, a coworker’s bad breath, the drone of the never-ending construction project down the street – this is sound advice. It also seems like a pretty solid relationship rule. After all, does it really matter what you have for dinner tonight, or which movie you go see, or who last took out the garbage? Far better to save your energy for issues that have significant consequences for you and your partner, such as whether to move in together, or get married, or have children, or buy a house.

However, there is some “small stuff” that we shouldn’t ignore or neglect. Like when a friend calls us to chat, or our spouse smiles and gives us a hug, or our children ask us to read them a story or show us their latest drawing. At first glance, these behaviors may seem trivial and unimportant. But they actually represent very important attempts by our partners to establish intimacy and to connect with us emotionally. Such demands for emotional involvement have been labeled “bids for emotional connection” by respected clinician and scholar Dr. John Gottman, who has conducted extensive research on the topic (see http://www.gottman.com/). Gottman, along with his colleague Dr. Janice Driver, has identified nine ways in which partners demand emotional connection and involvement from each other. These include:

● Bids for attention (“Look at what I drew in school today!”)

● Bids for interest (“Isn’t that the ugliest dog you’ve ever seen?”)

● Bids for enthusiastic engagement (“Hey, maybe we should think about taking a trip next month”)

● Bids for extended conversation (“Have you heard from Pat lately? The last time we saw her she was about to have that procedure done”)

● Bids for play (reaching out and tickling the partner)

● Bids for humor (“I heard the funniest story today…”)

● Bids for affection (reaching for the partner’s hand, asking for a kiss or hug)

● Bids for emotional support (“I’m really worried – I don’t think my new boss likes me”)

● Bids for self-disclosure (“So what happened at school today?”)

We can respond to each other’s bids for emotional connection in three basic ways. First, we might respond by “turning toward” the partner and his or her bid – here, we acknowledge and react appropriately to our partner’s request for connection and intimacy. To the child who shows us his picture, we enthusiastically note all the details and colors. To the friend who’s worried about her job, we nod sympathetically and provide encouraging words. To the spouse or date who reaches out to us, we give a warm smile and a hug.

Second, we might respond by passively “turning away” from the partner’s bid for connection – here, we simply ignore the partner’s statements or actions. We don’t return our friend’s phone call, we continue to stare fixedly at the TV when our spouse asks us a question, we ignore the hand reaching out to us or our child’s request for a bedtime story.

And third, we might respond by actively “turning against” the partner and his or her attempt to establish intimacy – here, we display an irritable, hostile, or negative reaction to the partner’s bid for connection. We belittle our friend’s job-related worries, we make a face and pull away from our spouse’s embrace, we refuse our child’s request for story time.

Each of these responses occurs with some frequency in any given relationship, and no one type of response is necessarily harmful to the health and wellbeing of the partners. For example, it is impossible to respond positively to every single bid for emotional connection that our partners make – sometimes we’re just too tired to respond, or we don’t have time to share an extended conversation, or we have looked at one too many works of child art. That being said, partners who consistently turn toward each other – who acknowledge and respond positively to each other’s bids for emotional connection – do appear to be better off than those with a history of failed bids. The greater the number of positive everyday moments two partners share, the less likely they are to feel lonely and the more likely they are to communicate effectively with each other and to feel satisfied with their relationship.

The take-home point from Gottman’s (and other scholars’) research is that we need to pay attention to each other. We need to participate fully and positively in the seemingly humdrum but absolutely essential everyday moments that make up a relationship. We need to sweat the small stuff, because the small stuff is important.

And as I sit here typing this, my dog Phoebe has just come up and nudged my arm. When I turn to scold her (I find this habit of hers incredibly irritating), she drops a spit-laden ball in my lap and steps back, head cocked, big brown eyes alight, tail wagging hopefully. This, too, is a bid for attention from one of the various partners who populate my relational world. I could frown and tell her “no,” or turn away and ignore her, and the truth is that I often make those very responses. But every relationship needs tending, and every partner (human or otherwise) is deserving of our attention. So right now, I’m stepping away from the computer and taking my dog outside to play ball.

Pamela Regan, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. She is the author of Close Relationships (Routledge).

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