Building and Maintaining Relationships

Wouldn’t it be great if we all took a course in high school called “How to do relationships 101”? Perhaps this class would happen right after Biology and right before English. The class might include topics such as “How to talk to the girl/boy you have a crush on” or “How to recover from an argument with your parents/siblings/friends/significant other”. It might also include a text book in subjects that might prepare you for future events such as “how to build a good relationship with your children.” You may also feel that tests related to maintaining long-term friendship helps you not only in high school but for the years to come.

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Unfortunately, as useful as this might be, this type of class is not part of standard curriculum. However, relationships have been studied extensively over the years and we have some knowledge related to the subjects above and more! One of the most widely-known relationship researchers is the psychologist Dr. John Gottman. He has spent years observing couples and other people in relationships (e.g. friends, coworkers, family members) to discover what works and what does not work. He suggests that by watching how people interact with each other for a short period of time – even in typical everyday interactions – one is able to predict whether the relationship will last or not.

Dr. Gottman describes something called “bids” as being one of the core findings in his 30 years of research. A “bid” is an opportunity to connect with someone else emotionally and is the core of building and maintaining relationships. An example of a bid might be if a friend says/texts/emails “I’d love to have coffee sometime”. This statement might represent your friend opening an opportunity for the two of you to spend time together, talk about your lives, build memories, and generally maintain or rejuvenate the ongoing friendship. How you respond to this bid may impact whether two people feel close and maintain the relationship or begin to drift apart.

Gottman describes three possible responses to a bid. First, you might “turn towards” a bid which might look like this: “Sure! I’d love to have coffee! How about next Tuesday?” or “I’d be really interested in catching up! This month is pretty busy – do you have a free Saturday next month?”. These types of responses demonstrate that the person recognizes the bid and engages with the opportunity to connect with the other person. The underlying message these responses send include: I hear you; I’m interested in you; I like you.

The other two options tend to have a less positive impact on the relationship and if repeated over time, might cause the relationship to disintegrate. If you choose to “turn away” from the bid, it might look like this “Did you hear that I got a new job?” or “I’m super busy right now, I’ve got to go!”. In general, turning away responses do not acknowledge the opportunity to connect with the other person and send messages such as: I’m not interested in you; I do not want to connect with you; I’m too busy to pay attention to your bid.

The third possible response to a bid would be to “turn against”. This type of response sound like: “Who has time for socializing these days? Not me!” or “Why is everyone so interested in coffee these days? Whatever happened to drinking water?” or even “If I make plans with you again, you better not be late again!”. These types of responses can send the message that the relationship is not valued, that the person feels hostile, or that they do not respect the person making the bid.

Typically, whether a relationship survives and thrives or withers and dies is not based on one or two interactions. More likely, the prognosis of the relationships is dependent on what happens over weeks, months, and years. Maintaining a relationship takes work and tends to be a marathon, not a race. If you find yourself missing someone in your life (even if you see them every day but do not feel connected), try reaching out and opening a bid to them and see what happens! Also, start to look for how the people in your life make bids. Perhaps it is your spouse offering to get you a cold drink when he or she gets one for themselves. Or maybe your co-worker asks if you would like to join him/her for a walk. Or your child might show you the drawing he/she made at school today. Make an effort to turn towards these bids as an investment in your future relationship!

If you have concerns about a relationship in your life (e.g. significant other, family member, friend, co-worker, etc.) and would like to discuss ways to improve this relationship, you might consider booking a session with our Counselling Psychologist: Jennifer McCormick. Also, if you find it difficult to connect with people in general, Jennifer would be a great resource and will provide an compassionate and non-judgmental environment to discuss your concerns!

The content of this article is based on the book “The Relationship Cure” by Dr. John Gottman and Joan DeClaire.

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