Billy Connolly jokes about spotting the danger signs of complacency creeping into his relationship with his wife. “One year, I wrote on my wife’s Valentine’s card, ‘I love you, dear. P.S See last year’s card for details.’”
The many changes and transitions of midlife – kids growing up and leaving home (or staying!), retirement uncertainties, physical changes, possible desires for new focus – can all impact of our relationship. However, getting things back on track with a loved one, or on a new track, if desired, can be simpler than we think and the starting point is to look at how you are communicating with each other. Let me explain.
Understand your signals
Psychologists suggest that during the conversations we have with others, we make signals or ‘bids.’ If that word makes you think of a poker game or an auction room, then you’re on the right track. A bid is something that invites a response. Often, we don’t notice how we are responding – until it is too late and the damage has been done.
How to spot the small signs of complacency in your relationship
The good news is that these micro signals (or ‘bids’) are very easy to spot and pretty easy to change if we know where to look and are willing to make the effort.
This was demonstrated in a study carried out in the early 1980s by psychologist John Gottman, who researched why some married couples stay together while others break up. Professor Gottman watched a series of couples closely as they went about their daily interactions and found that the answer he was looking for lay in the tiny details of those apparently inconsequential everyday exchanges. Banal as they seemed on the surface, at another level they were highly nuanced emotional exchanges.
So how does this work and how is it related to creating change?
Picture the scene. Your partner is sitting in front of their computer, doing some work. You enter the room and ask whether they fancy a coffee. Your partner now has the chance to respond in one of three ways:
- They could acknowledge your offer and reply to it in a positive way
“That’s really kind. I’ll have it black with lots of sugar.” Or “Thanks but I am okay right now.”
In psychologists speak; this is called a “turning towards response” or a “response bid”.
- They could acknowledge it in a negative way
“Your coffee is disgusting, I’ll do it myself” or, “You want to make me a coffee? What do you want in return?”
Unsurprisingly, this is called an “against bid”.
- Or they could just stay silent, or reply by changing the subject
“There is a new film out this week.”
This is called an “away from” bid. By replying they acknowledge that you have spoken, but they don’t engage with what you’ve said. In effect they ignore your bid.
Whatever response they choose will determine what you do next. But only the first one is likely to encourage you to make another bid. Faced with an “against” or “away from” response we are more likely to make an unconscious mental note not to bother asking next time.
Which couples stay together?
The research shows that, when we use plenty of the “turning towards” bids, the effects are enormous. Couples where the exchanges are predominantly “towards” stay together. In fact, there is even a against”) responses, we are likely to have a healthy, long-lasting partnership.
Try this at home
If you are wondering how to re-light your relationship, learning the language of bids could prove to be invaluable.
Start to pay attention to your own relationship and count how many times you make a response/away/against bid in one day.
Are you at the magic ratio of 5:1 for response bids: away/against bids? If you haven’t hit this ratio, you can attempt to improve the relationship by increasing the number of response bids that you make and they may well follow your example.