I have a son that is about to turn four. He’s a chatty boy. If he has your attention, sit tight, because he has a lot to tell you. Now couple that with me, his mama, who right now feels chronically behind on that to-do list. I’ll be doing the dishes and my boy parades in with something he’s created or a story he has to share. Trying to multi-task, I keep to my dishes and repeat “yeah?” and “uh huh” as feels appropriate. Recently though my son will stop me and say “Mom look at me.” I’ll glance over with my eyes real quick to satisfy him, but it’s not enough. “Look with your neck!” He demands.
The first time he said “Look with your neck!” I laughed, but was confused. After a little trial-and-error, I learned to “look with my neck” was to turn my whole head and look at him. He needed to feel like he had my whole attention. He was giving me a bid for attention.
What’s a bid for attention? Bids are a concept from marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman’s research. They are actions that are asking for emotional connection. Sometimes they are explicitly stated (e.g. “let’s spend time together”), and lots of times they are implied. The art of a healthy relationship is learning to identify and respond to the more subtle implied bids for affection.
One of my favorite examples is the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from the movie Frozen. In case you’ve been living under a rock and missed the “Let it Go” Frenzy of 2013, the song is about a girl trying to ask her emotionally closed off sister to build a snowman with her, something they used to do together all the time. At one part of the song the singer says “It doesn’t have to be a snowman.” All she really wants is time together. She’s making a bid for connection.
Become a Master at Learning and Responding to Bids
In healthy relationships, couples try to become masters of learning and responding to their partner’s bids. It’s intentional. If you aren’t intentional about listening for and responding to your love’s bids for affection, then you’ll probably miss out on a lot of opportunities to become closer.
Think about how you act when you are dating someone. You’re much more aware and sensitive to possible chances to get closer. She moved in, should I put my arm around her? His hand is close to mine, are we going to hold hands? A personal favorite “It looks like he’s leaning” from the ever eloquent Joe Jr. of While You Were Sleeping.
We put so much time and effort into the beginning of our relationships. We were trying to read into (or over read) every little thing the other does and figure out what they were trying to say to us. Do you put that much effort into your relationships now?
I’m not saying your relationship should be an anxiety filled “does he like me?” bonanza, but think of how intentional your relationship was at the beginning. Time has a tendency to replace all that TLC with RT (rough treatment). How do you fight back that entropic chaotic tendency to treat each other roughly, and really build your relationships? We need to look for bids and respond to them.
This idea isn’t just vital to your romantic relationship, but just as vital to really any relationship you want to be strong. Whether that’s your mother, a sibling, or a friend, if you want to have a good relationship you need to learn and respond to these bids for connection. Maybe your mom likes to talk on the phone with you, or your brother likes to go hiking, cluing into their “language” of reaching out to you and reaching back will deepen and strengthen your bond.
Paddling a Canoe
Dr. Jeff Hill, a family and work scholar at Brigham Young University, teaches that if you want to build a relationship with someone you need to spend time together doing something you both like. Sometimes reaching out can be learning to like someone else’s hobbies (or at least appreciating them). Doing this can not only help you bond together, but it can also stretch you as a person as you try new things.
Last example, my husband loves the outdoors. He loves to hike, camp, you name it. If it’s outside, he’ll enjoy it. As a teenager he went on several trips out to Eastern Oregon to go white water canoeing. Think back packing in the wilderness, but in a canoe. He had many fond memories of these trips and would tell me lots of stories about them. It sounded…nice. I’m all for a good adventure, from the comfort of my couch and air conditioning.
There came an opportunity for him to go on another one of these trips. I was thrilled, I knew he’d love it. But when he asked me to go with him, let’s just say the answer didn’t come as quickly. Weeks later I found myself paddling a canoe down the John Day River in Eastern Oregon. While it wasn’t my first pick, I have never regretted it. I definitely learned a lot, but more than anything it strengthened our relationship. It was like one of those crazy team building exercises for us (something about the immediate threat of capsizing in white water rapids is so bonding). I was able to see why all these things really resonated with my husband so deeply and share that with him. I also got to spend time with my brother-in-law and father-in-law who came with us. Those memories were filled with laughs and lots of joy. I treasure them.
So look for those bids. They may sound like “Let’s go to the store” “What are you up to?” “Hey listen to this” or look like an arm around the shoulder, or lots and lots of other things. Your job is figuring it out. If you think about it, really anytime someone invites you to do anything with them, it’s probably some sort of bid. It’ll take some practice, but work at it hard enough and you’ll learn someone else’s bids like a fluent language.