January 20, 2018

It’s not about communicating more – It’s about connecting

Communicating effectively with the significant people in your life is very important. However, several research studies over the past two decades have shown that there is something more fundamental that must be present in our relationships for communication techniques to really work. Without a fundamental emotional connection all the communicating in the world is not going to make your relationship strong and secure.

What is emotional connection? It is being able to turn to others for emotional support. That is not an immature need to rely on others. It is about being able to give and take emotional support. That is how we build relationships. Even in the corporate world we have learned that teams are more effective than the “lone ranger.”

In her book Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson says that hundreds of studies over the past 20 years have validated the fact that “a sense of secure connection between romantic partners is a key in positive loving relationships and a huge source of strength for individuals in those relationships.” Close ties with others are vital to all aspects of our health – mental, emotional, and physical.

What happens in a relationship when the connection is lost? When a loved one is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we tend to feel anger, sadness, hurt, and most of all fear. As human beings we all long for evidence that we are understood and cared about. This is especially true in the significant relationships in our lives.

Dr. Johnson maintains that most fights are protests over the fear of emotional disconnection. She says that “underneath all of the distress, partners are asking each other: ‘Can I count on you, depend on you? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you?” The anger, the criticism, the demands in arguments are really pleas to your loved one to reestablish a sense of safe connection. So when conflict arises, look beneath the surface for what the real message is. Maybe your partner is trying to reconnect.

Even happy couples fight. However, because happy couples have not lost their sense of connection, the arguments are much less likely to spiral out of control. And even if they do, the attempts to repair the situation are more likely to work. If communication stays open in the midst of conflict, partners are more likely to be able to resolve issues, repair hurt feelings, and move forward. But this is only possible if the relationship is grounded in the everyday things that build and maintain the connection between the partners.

How is connection built and maintained? Dr. John Gottman, considered by many to be one of the foremost relationship experts because of the vast amount of research he has conducted, says that the fundamental unit of emotional communication is what he calls “the bid.” He defines it as “a question, a gesture, a look, a touch. It is a simple expression that says ‘I feel connected to you.’” You can respond to a bid by either positively or negatively answering your loved one’s request for emotion connection.

Here’s an example of a dialogue in which one partner wants to have lunch together and the other cannot do it.

Bid: “Can we have lunch today?”

Positive response: “Oh, I’d love to have lunch with you but I really have to finish this report today and it’s going to take several more hours. How about tomorrow?” (Feels like you care about me and want to be with me.)

Negative response: “I don’t have time. You know I have to finish this report today.” (Feels like rejection.)

Relationships are built bid by bid. Fulfilling relationships don’t just happen magically. They are the accumulation of substantially more positive than negative responses to our loved one’s bid requests.

As relationships grow, the intensity and frequency of bids grows as well. Positive responses are often open-ended questions that ask for more information even about small situations. This sense of curiosity tells your loved one that you are interested and that you care.

Responses are more than just the words that are said. The tone of voice and the level of attention given to the bidder also speak volumes. For example, if a husband asks his wife’s opinion about something that is important to him and she continues to multi-task, splitting her attention among several activities including her response to his question, she will appear distracted and he is likely to feel that he doesn’t really matter. If the question comes when she is doing something like preparing dinner, it’s probably best if the husband asks for a time that they can discuss his question or she responds by saying that she would love to discuss it and can they do it after dinner. Same thing goes if he is watching his favorite TV program.

There are lots of little every day ways to connect. It is in the little things that you feel that your partner is connected to you in a meaningful way.

Stay tuned for more about the “little’ things.


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