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?