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The Small, Simple Habit That Keeps a Relationship Going Strong

It’s the daily nods, smiles, and "uh-huhs" that matter, not the diamonds.

Ryan McGuire, Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

Many people believe love is shown through grand gestures—taking out a second mortgage to buy the wife a doorstop-sized diamond or building her the Taj Mahal out of Lego in the backyard.

But a happy relationship is actually made out of dozens of little daily shows of attention to one’s partner—sometimes of the most mundane kind: a grunted yes, the crack of a smile, a nod.

These are responses to what marriage researchers John Gottman and Janice Driver call “bids for connection.” They are the many small attempts people in relationships make to get their partner’s attention, affection, or emotional support.

Most of these don’t read as calls for romance. Your partner might ask you whether you know what time your kid’s soccer practice ends or yank your sleeve and say, “Hey, check out the crazy hat on that dude!”

You can respond to this “bid” in one of three ways: Ignore the bid (“turn away”), express irritation (“turn against”), or reply lovingly (“turn toward”).

Turning toward doesn’t mean replying in poetic verse. It just means showing your partner loving attention by answering in some way—with a grin, a nod, or maybe a hug if they’re upset. This small gesture from you shows them that they matter, that they're important to you.

In Gottman and Driver’s research, they observed the interactions of just-married couples and then checked in with them six years later. At the six-year mark, the couples who were still married were those who’d initially “turned toward” each other 86% of the time, on average. The couples who ended up divorced had a 33% turn-toward rate.

Their finding calls to mind the Erich Fromm quote, “Love is an activity” (as opposed to a feeling). Loving is something you do. By the way, that’s very good news, because it means you have control over how loving your relationship is.

If your relationship has something that’s gone missing from it—the love, the affection, the fun—talk to your partner about bids for connection. Ask them to try something with you—for just a week: No matter what you’re each doing, no matter how tired you are after a long day, you’ll put in the tiny loving effort of a “turn toward” when your partner engages with you. Check in a week later and see how it felt for each of you. Consider whether it’s a habit you want to incorporate.

Doing that will mean there's love in the air when you and your partner are cleaning out the garage or standing in line together at the drugstore or the post office. Accordingly, the happiest Valentine’s Day is the one that comes off to a couple as some dumb commercialized holiday, not their last hope of romantic triage.

Couples that see Valentine's Day, birthdays, or anniversaries as relationship savers try to make up for all the attention they haven’t paid to their partner all year long by doing the romantic version of cramming for an exam—going outrageously extravagant. But as Gottman and Driver show with their findings on “bids for connection,” love isn’t “I got ya an island with a villa!” It’s “I got ya—all day, every day" in countless very important little ways.

Facebook image: Rido/Shutterstock


Driver, Janice and John Mordechai Gottman. “Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples.” Family process 43 3 (2004): 301-14.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Anniversary edition (August 6, 2019).