What is a “bid” and how do you make one?
Marriage researcher John Gottman calls bids the “fundamental unit of emotional communication.”
Bids are actions that people take to connect to or to gain the attention of their partner. Bids can take many forms: pointing at something you see, reading aloud something that interests you from the newspaper, making space on the couch as an invitation for your partner to join you, an erotic caress, a smile across the room at a party, the announcement of a promotion at work, or coming home and saying, “I’ve had the worst day!” In all of these communications, the person making the bid is hoping for a positive, connected reaction from their partner.
What makes bids so important?
In research conducted over decades, couples that reported a high level of relationship satisfaction responded to as many as 86% of all bids from their partners. In the couples with low levels of reported satisfaction and eventual dissolution, they responded to as few as 33% of all bids. Note that all couples give some connection or attention to their partners some of the time. Equally true is the fact that all couples miss the bid for connection some of the time. What makes the difference in relationship satisfaction and feelings of closeness is how often, how engaged, and how positive the responses are.
Satisfying long-term relationships are not built from going on fabulous adventures and date nights. Instead, they’re built upon a foundation of daily attentiveness and a willingness to make space for your partner’s needs, interests, and concerns. They’re built upon successful bids.
How can you respond to bids?
Researchers have found that there are three basic ways that partners respond to bids: by turning towards, turning away, or turning against. When we make a bid, we are hoping that our partner will turn towards. An unsuccessful bid will result in our partner turning away or turning against.
Turning towards. Whether you glance briefly in your partner’s direction or you enthusiastically respond with interest and concern, you are responding to their bid for connection. Your response can be minimal, neutral, warm, or ecstatic- all count as being “towards” your partner. Even letting your partner know that you are busy and aren’t able to attend to them in the moment is turning towards
your partner. At the very least, your response communicates that you are present for your partner and that they matter to you. At its best, your response communicates genuine interest, warmth, affection, respect, and admiration.
Turning away: When you are preoccupied and do not notice the bid or feel that you lack the bandwidth to respond, you are turning away. Alternately, when you interrupt your partner’s bid with a change in subject that is more pertinent to your agenda, you are also turning away. Whatever your intention with your response, turning away communicates to your partner at the very least that you are not present to them. At the extreme, turning away communicates to your partner that what they do, say, or care about is not important to you.
Turning against: When you respond to a bid with annoyance, criticism, hostility, contempt, or defensiveness, you are turning against the bid for connection. Your response communicates to your partner that they are not welcome or important and that they are a source of problems or irritation to you.
Examples of bids and responses:
Bid: You are reading a text from your mother that contains distressing information. You sigh loudly and look up from your phone.
Turning towards response: Your partner looks up from what they are doing and asks, “What’s up?”
Turning away: Your partner doesn’t notice or respond to your actions.
Turning against: Your partner looks up from what they are doing, rolls their eyes, and asks with an irritated tone of voice, “What is it now?”
Bid: You are trying to fix a broken drawer in the bathroom. Your partner walks in and asks you how your day was.
Turning towards response: You stop what you’re doing; look up, smile, and say, “Hey, love. I’m trying to fix this. Let me finish up the hard part and then I’ll catch up with you.”
Turning away: You don’t respond at all because you are focused on what you are doing.
Turning away: You snap, “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Bid: You and your partner are reading on the couch. You put your hand on their knee.
Turning towards response: Your partner puts their hand on your knee.
Turning away: Your partner doesn’t respond in any way.
Turning against: Your partner meets your gaze with an unfriendly expression.
Bid: Your partner walks in while you are making dinner and says, “I had the worst day.” You are in the middle of sautéing some onions while trying to cut some other ingredients that soon need to be added to the skillet.
Turning towards response: “Sorry, dear- I’m in the middle of something I can’t stop. Why don’t you make us a couple of drinks and once I’ve got this going, you can tell me all about it?”
Turning away: “Can you chop those peppers for me?”
Turning against: In an irritated tone, “I’m kind of busy here!”
Bid: Your partner stands in front of you and says in a worried tone, “I just paid the bills, and I think we’re spending too much money on going out.”
Turning towards response: “You sound really upset right now.”
Turning away: You grunt and do not look up from your text conversation with your friend.
Turning against: You roll your eyes. “There you go again. The real problem is that you bought that car. If you weren’t such an impulse shopper, we wouldn’t be in this situation!”
Tips on how to improve how you make and respond to bids:
Some people are more skillful at making bids. Some people are more skillful at noticing and responding to bids. Because this is a skillset, with focus and practice, you can improve.
If you find that you have trouble making clear bids that increase the likelihood that you are noticed and responded to, pay attention to what your bids look and sound like. Is the emotional content clear, or are you worried about being vulnerable or coming across as being conflicted (maybe you are conflicted!)? You might want to focus on increasing your emotional literacy skills so that you have a better idea of what feelings you are trying to convey. Once you know that, you might want to learn about and practice assertive communication skills. This can help you help your partner to understand clearly what you are trying to communicate.
People who struggle with responding to bids often find that they are overwhelmed with their emotional state, have trouble being present, and are struggling with competing priorities. If you find that you have trouble responding to bids, you might need to learn about and to practice listening skills, being in the moment, self-soothing, stress management, or healthy boundaries.