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In Relationships, the Little Moments Matter

Taking every opportunity to build something that will last.

Key points

  • Each day we make small "emotional bids" to our family members. These are little moments of attempted connection.
  • Emotional bids hold great meaning for our relationships, but are easy to ignore or brush off.
  • "Relationship masters" are much more likely to respond positively to emotional bids than "relationship disasters."
  • Often, we're too busy to pay attention or respond when family members try to connect. How often do they do the same?
By Nastya_gepp on Pixabay
Source: By Nastya_gepp on Pixabay

The last time your partner gave you a quick kiss, how did you respond? What about when your child started telling you about their day? Did you stop what you were doing and ask questions or half-listen while you tried to multi-task?

Each day, we make emotional bids to those in our lives—little moments of attempted connection. According to relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman, these bids hold great meaning for our relationships. People in thriving relationships (who the Gottmans call “relationship masters”) tend to respond positively to each other’s bids most of the time, whereas people in distressed relationships (“relationship disasters”) are more likely than the masters to ignore or respond negatively to each other’s emotional bids.

In a busy life, these little moments might feel just like that—little moments that don't really matter. How big of a deal can it really be if you don’t look up from your phone when your partner makes a comment about something they see out the window?

But each moment we ignore is a missed opportunity to connect and build up an emotional bank of positive moments that can help buffer us when things go wrong. When our partner promises they'll call on their way home from work and then shows up at home without having done so, our irritation towards them is likely to be a lot smaller if we have some savings in the emotional bank that we can draw from. On the other hand, even a minor annoyance might start to feel like a big deal if our emotional bank is running a deficit and we have no positive feelings to fall back on in that moment.

What do you do? Just being aware of the importance of these small moments might help. Start by looking for the emotional bids that your family members make each day—how often do you engage and respond to them, even a little bit? How often do you brush them off or ignore them? And take some time to look at your own emotional bids, too—how often do you reach out and try to connect with your family? And how do they respond?

If we keep ignoring each other, then at some point we might just stop trying altogether. Your child might stop trying to tell you about their day if it is clear you aren’t listening, and your partner might stop calling you at lunchtime to say hi if you always sound too busy to talk. We can’t always stop what we are doing, but we can still let the other person know we got their bid and care. Returning a bid doesn’t have to be a big-time investment—just a moment of attention and a quick hug could be enough to show you care.

While much of the research on emotional bids has focused on couples, emotional bids happen in all of our relationships. The dynamics between parents and children or coworkers might be different than between romantic partners, but feeling heard and valued and having someone pay attention to you feels good, no matter the relationship context.

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Feeney, B. C., & Lemay, E. P. (2012). Surviving Relationship Threats: The Role of Emotional Capital. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1004–1017.