The secret to making a relationship last is a billion-dollar business — everyone from attachment theorists to dating experts to pop-psych talk show hosts wants to capitalize on the uncertainty we have about whether the relationship we prize so highly now will “succeed” in the long run. It feels impossible; can we ever really know what will work and what won’t? Actually, maybe, yes: at least research from these well-established relationship experts suggests so. As the Gottman Institute puts it:
It’s your wedding day. The universe starts a giant egg timer set for six years. When the egg timer goes off, you’ll either be divorced or you won’t. You’ve heard the rumor that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but someone knows some tips that can increase your odds of making it. More importantly, they know of a single strategy that would virtually guarantee that you would divorce before the timer went off. Would you want to know it?
The big secret might not be as arcane as you think: the key is understanding and responding to your partner’s emotional bids. Here’s everything you need to know about what that actually means.
What’s a “bid?”
Broadly speaking, a “bid” is any attempt to connect with your partner. (Think of the term less like a bid at an auction, and more like the phrase “I think she’s going to make a bid for the manager job opening.) We might initially associate this phrase with the sort of grand gestures we make to try to recapture the spark — booking a weekend away to “reconnect,” planning dates nights without our phones, taking a painting class together, etc. And a bid can be those things, but it’s also the much, much smaller things that we do every day: ask our partner if they’ll pour us a cup of coffee when they go to get one for themselves, send a TikTok to our partner while they’re at work for the day, pointing out the cows out the window when we’re on a road trip.
At the beginning of a relationship, in the exciting crush or “talking” stage, we tend to respond enthusiastically to bids — imagine how you’d respond if the person you’ve been on only three dates with and are really excited about texted you a cute picture of their cat. You’d likely be elated to see the text notification and respond profusely and immediately. Even if you don’t think of it in these terms, you on some level recognize it as a bid — that your hot new date was thinking about you, and wants attention from you — and choose to respond to it so that you can show your date you’re interested in them, and encourage them to continue dating you.
Now, think about how you might react if your spouse of five years sends you a photo of your shared cat doing something cute during your workday. You might respond enthusiastically, or you might just heart-react to the message and then move on — you might even not respond at all, being swamped with work and focused on a dozen other things. After all, you’re going to see your cat — and your partner — in a few hours anyway. While those feelings are totally understandable, the contrast here demonstrates precisely what the Gottman’s biggest finding was: the major difference between couples who “make it” long-term and those who fall apart is how they respond to the mundane, daily miniature “bids” like this one.
How do we know bids matter?
In a novel research approach, John Gottman and Robert Levenson began longitudinal studies of newly married couples. They looked at these couples in a number of ways: they asked them to describe their relationship, including things like a recent fight they’d had, but also observed them, going so far as to have them (knowingly) live in a surveilled apartment for a week.
They then followed the couples they studied over as many as 14 years, including a 12-year study of same-sex couples. When they divided the couples in the study into “successes” and divorces and looked back at the information they had gathered about each set of couples over the years, they found a clear trend: “Simply put, successful couples are attentive. They listen, and they put their phones down when the other person wants to chat.”
Although there are other indicators — Gottman has also discovered important trends around how couples deal with conflict, leading the Institute to develop important resources on repair after conflict — the major takeaway was that the key to relationship success is much simpler than many of us think it is: we need to pay attention to our partner’s bids, and put effort into responding to them.
How do you respond effectively to your partner’s bids?
Gottman’s Theory of responding to your partner’s “bids” means actively showing up for an emotional connection with your partner. A partner’s bid could be anything from a request for conversation, to a gesture of affection, to an inquiry about the other person’s day — for most of us, the first step to becoming someone who responds well to bids is to start noticing when they’re happening.
The Gottman Institute has a list of 14 categories of everyday bids to start with, but for many of us, a good place to start is by noticing what we’re slightly annoyed by from our partner day to day. Are they asking us to walk the dog so they can finish a work project? Watch their choice of movie instead of ours? Listen to them explain the complex plot of the book series they’re reading? Often, that feeling of slight annoyance or overwhelm is a sign that our partner is making some kind of bid for our time, attention, or care — can you work on slowly shifting that feeling of irritation to an awareness that your partner is reaching out, and respond with that in mind?
Once you have that awareness, what does it mean to actually “respond” to your partner? The Gottman Institute says there are three ways you can respond to a bid:
- Turning towards (acknowledging the bid)
- Turning away (ignoring or missing the bid)
- Turning against (rejecting the bid in an argumentative or belligerent way)
Returning to the example from earlier — your long-term partner or spouse has sent you a cute picture of your cat in the middle of the day while you’re in the middle of several tasks at work — what would turning toward, away, or against look like?
Think about the full range of options you have. An enthusiastic turning toward might look like an effusive range of emojis, and a full message about how much you miss the cat and your partner, and wish you were home. Maybe even a message asking for more information about how your partner’s day is going and what things are like at home — recognizing the fact that the choice to send this photo is likely a bid for attention and care from you in general, and not just about the cat.
You could, of course, choose not to respond (or respond extremely perfunctorily, as with an “lol”) — a turning away, even if you don’t intend it as such. What would it look like to turn against? Maybe an irritable or curt message about how busy you are, and your partner should only text during the day for emergencies. Even in the unlikely event this is true, there’s a kinder way to say this (making a bid of your own), and maybe at a different time — delivering this message in this way is likely to feel like a rejection to your partner.
Do you have to write a full Homerian epic about how cute your cat is every single day to have a happy marriage? Not necessarily — but Gottman found that successful couples, those they deemed “masters” of responding to bids, turned towards their partner at least 86% of the time. Those who broke up turned toward only 33% of the time. Which number do you think you’re closer to right now?
I’m responding to my partner’s bids, but what if they aren’t responding to mine?
A relationship takes two people to succeed; often, it takes two people trying their absolute hardest. (Relationships are a lot of work!). You can be trying as hard as humanly possible, and even responding to a superhuman 100% of your partner’s bids — but if they aren’t matching your effort, then the relationship still can’t work. You can try to work on this with a partner and communicate to them that you aren’t feeling seen or met halfway in this relationship, but it’s up to them whether to take that feedback seriously.
While it may sound silly to think about ending a relationship because they always want to show you their favorite Youtube videos but don’t want to watch yours, the dynamics around bids in our relationship speak to deeper issues, and our partners’ capacity and willingness to meet our needs. In an ideal relationship, even one that’s become a bit more mundane, an effort from one person to re-commit to responding to bids from their partner will inspire a mutual effort; it’s very much okay to be disappointed and make choices based on that disappointment if that’s not the case.