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Your Partner Is Begging You to Connect Multiple Times Every Day…You’re Just Not Seeing It, Say Relationship Experts

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You’re chopping up an onion for dinner while thinking about all the work you have to do later, when you let out an audible sigh. Does your spouse a. Respond with “hey sweetie, is there something wrong?” b. Keep scrolling on their phone or c. Say, “Urgh, what’s the matter now?”

OK, so you probably don’t need to be a relationship expert to know that response A is the ideal answer. What you probably don’t realize is just how important this seemingly small gesture really is, though. In fact, renowned relationship experts John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman dub this “the biggest predictor of happiness.” Because that sigh was so much more than just a sighit was a bid for connection.

In their new book, The Love Prescription, the Gottmans write that a big misconception many of us have is that for connection to be meaningful, you must give hours of time to it. And so, on a busy day when you’re juggling work, kids, chores and everything else, there’s just no time for you and your S.O. to actually sit down and connect. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We have opportunities for connection constantly—but we miss them,” the marriage researchers argue. “We don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, and we don’t know how important these seemingly small, fleeting, insignificant moments can be. In the language of the science of love, what we are doing in these quick moments is making what we call ‘bids for connection.’”

These bids can be anything, like reaching for your partner’s hand while watching TV or telling your spouse about a dream you had, and yes, even as small as just a sigh. And how we respond to these bids for connection can make or break a relationship.

By observing couples, the Gottmans found that there are three possible ways to respond to someone’s invitation to connect. Let’s say your partner is reading the news and says, “Oh hey, this is an interesting article.” Here’s how you couldrespond:

1. By turning toward. Using a positive or affirmative response, acknowledging the other person and engaging with their attempt to connect. “Oh yeah? What’s it about?”
2. By turning away. No response. You don’t acknowledge your partner and keep working on your computer.
3. By turning against. Responding irritably to shut down a partner's attempt at connection. “Can you not talk right now? I’m trying to finish this email.”

When the researchers set up their “Love Lab,” they observed 130 newlywed couples for a couple of days to look for specific behaviors that might turn out to be significant for future happiness or distress. What they found was that how people responded to bids for connection was a predictor not just of future happiness but also relationship stability. Specifically, six years after the initial observation, the couples who got divorced had only turned toward their partner’s bids 33 percent of the time. The couples who stayed together had turned toward 86 percent of the time. That’s a big difference!

Of course, it’s worth noting that no couple turns towards one another all the time. But how often you do it really matters. OK, but what about when your partner makes a bid and you can’t engage? (You actually really do need to finish that email!). Try acknowledging that you want to turn towards, but circumstances are preventing it. Think: “I’d love to hear more about the article, but I have to send this email right now—can you remember to tell me about it later?”

It might not seem like much, but turning toward your partner can have a big impact. Per the Gottmans, “These fleeting little moments, it turned out, spelled the difference between happiness and unhappiness, between lasting love and divorce.” 

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