Being seen and feeling like you matter is such a big part of feeling loved, that you can’t really call a relationship without those elements a truly loving or close one.

Today is Day 5 of the Healthy Relationship Jump Start Mini Course, and today we’re looking at an often overlooked aspect of what helps relationships work better: Turning towards, which is the process of attending to each other and being emotionally responsive to each other’s bids for connection.

“Turning Towards” is a term coined by Dr. John Gottman. It refers to responding to your loved one’s bids for connection. Turning towards also builds trust.

Here’s a short but powerful video where Dr. Gottman explains the small moments that impact feelings of connection, attunement, and trust in relationships.

Results of Dr. Gottman’s initial research with couples at Seattle’s “love lab” (the nickname for an actual apartment overlooking the Puget Sound that University of Washington researchers had tricked out with all sorts of cool observational measuring devices), was a surprising association that highlights the importance of responding to loved ones’ bids for connection. Read more about research done through the Gottman Institute here.

It turns out that his results showed a huge difference between couples who “turn towards” each other a lot, and those who don’t.

The couples who were still married six years after the study ended responded to each others’ bids for connection (i.e., “turned towards”) approximately 86% of the time. On the other hand, those couples who were divorced six years later turned towards each other only 33% of the time or less. This was a statistically significant finding, and pointed to the importance of responsiveness to bids for connection and what Gottman termed “turning towards” for the health of the marriage.

The reason this is surprising is the magnitude of the difference in turning towards between the two groups — it’s huge!

So what does this mean for people who want to maximize the health of their important relationships?

Basically, the message is that when someone you love makes a bid for your attention, connection, or input, please respond.  Don’t ignore them, and don’t be hostile or act annoyed by your loved one’s bids.

This doesn’t mean you always have to say “yes” to a bid, just make sure that you acknowledge that the bid is being made.  Even a “hmmmm” counts as a response. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or wordy – it just has to give the message “I heard you — I see you– you matter.”

So what exactly is a bid?

A bid is any verbal or non-verbal gesture that is essentially a request for connection. Here’s a list of some common ways people make bids for connection. Some are more obvious than others:

  • “Will you go to the store with me?”
  • Your infant smiles, coos, and gazes at you as you walk across the room
  • “Does this tie go with this shirt?”
  • Your toddler pats the couch cushion next to him or her and says “Here”.
  • “Wow, it’s really cold out!”
  • “I went to the gym today.”
  • “Want to fool around?”
  • “What should we plant in the garden this year?”
  • “Knock-knock…”
  • “Mom, I can’t find my backpack!”
  • “Where’s the butter?”
  • “Hey, I can do a cartwheel!”
  • “Want to watch a movie tonight?”

What you may notice about all of these verbal and nonverbal bids is that they’re all meant to answer a fundamental question, “Do I matter to you?” “Do I count?” “Do you see me?” These bids for connection (and sometimes attention) are subconsciously designed to answer these questions, so your answer really matters!

When you respond to your loved one’s bids, your responsiveneses says to them: “Yes, you matter. Yes, I care.”  

If you ignore them or give a hostile or shaming response, that gives the opposite message.  Once in a while we all lose patience and don’t respond kindly or positively to bids. That’s absolutely typical.  It’s what we do the majority of the time that either builds up or tears down our relationships. So when we talk about responsiveness, we’re talking percentages, not perfection!  Your goal should be to improve the percent of the time you respond to your loved one’s bids.

Interestingly, as you start being more responsive, the tone in the relationship starts to shift to a more positive feeling between you – there’s less tension, and more warmth. This is a good sign — so watch for it! 

Note: Some people really have a hard time noticing bids.  If this is you, don’t worry. You will get better with awareness and practice.  If your spouse is your target for the Healthy Relationship Jump Start, you can have him or her read this post, and ask them to alert you (nicely) if they make a bid and you don’t seem to notice. That way, you’ll have an opportunity to learn to notice their bids, and react with a “turning towards” response more frequently.

Your responsiveness to bids for connection is a skill you can improve that will have a positive impact on the quality of your relationships with your loved ones today, and for years to come.

If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, remember to pace yourself.  These kinds of changes are more like a marathon than a sprint.

In the past few days I’ve introduced concepts to you that normally would take months to lay out to folks coming into my office (plus, we’d go over them several times before moving on to anything super new). So don’t feel badly if you’re a bit lost right now!  Pick and choose what feels important to you to work on, and start with that.

These posts aren’t going anywhere, so you can review them any time to remind yourself of the topics and keep refining your skills over time!  In my opinion, high level relationship skills truly take a lifetime to master – but you can see results as you put these key skills into practice in your daily life.

Use your Healthy Relationship Jump Start Tracker to make a goal of turning towards when you notice bids for connection.  Keep a tally of times you turned towards on the outer circle, and shade in a small area each time you do!

You’re doing a great job so far!  Here’s a fist bump for starting the last lap of the Jump Start Mini Couse!

Tomorrow is the last day of the Healthy Relationship Jump Start mini course, and I’m super excited for you to see it through. We can do this!

Together, Better Stronger, ~~ Dr. Beth Schmit

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