Written by Sharon Volpe Carroll, MA, MBA, LPC-S
I was thinking about a recent visit my family and I took to Quebec City in Canada. We were in the lower section of the old part of the city, strolling along a very quaint street lined with inviting cafes, galleries, and shops. Around every corner was some artsy display or bit of décor. We were enjoying the adventure of being outdoors in a new place that had lots to explore and was appealing, safe, and friendly all at the same time.
As we walked by a shop that sold soaps, we noticed a little dog look directly at us through the window. The door of the shop was just past the window and was open. When we were adjacent to the door, the dog came and stood on the top step and beckoned us to come in. Of course, we did! The dog greeted us for a pet on her head and returned to her bed next to the shop owner.
Once in the store, we took our time enjoying the scents of the various handcrafted soaps that the shop offered and deciding which ones were our favorites. A couple of us decided to buy some soap. As we made our purchases and chatted with the shop’s owner, we learned that the dog loved coming to the shop each day to serve the customers and was eager to return if she had to miss a day for any reason.
I chuckled as we left the shop, knowing just how clever the shop owner was to bring her dog to work each day. I knew that we would not even have stopped in the shop, much less made a purchase there if it had not been for the little dog.
This story of the little dog is a good illustration of what John Gottman in his research on couples calls emotional bidding. So, what is emotional bidding? An emotional bid is a request for a positive connection, something we all long for as human beings. One way to get a connection is to make a request to someone. In a close relationship, these bids happen often and in various ways. Sometimes bids are simple gestures or requests and sometimes they are more complex and meaningful. No matter the type of bid, the person making the bid is saying or asking, notice me, I want to have some fun with you, I need your help to reduce my stress, are you still there?, do I matter to you?
Some examples of bids include:
Your partner is reading an article on the Internet and mentions an interesting fact.
You walk into a party with your partner and reach for his or her hand.
The two of you are strolling along the beach at dusk and your partner stops to listen to the sound of the waves.
You are thinking about looking for a new job and ask your partner to help you process the decision.
Your partner’s father has died and he/she is both grieving and trying to make sense of life.
You both decide to work together on setting goals for the future.
Gottman found that in healthy relationships, partners were comfortable not only making bids, but making all kinds of bids. The way bids are responded to can significantly impact the closeness of the relationship. Gottman calls the responses Turning. The responding partner either turns toward, against, or away. When a bid is noticed and positively responded to (there’s a turning toward), the initiating partner feels safe, validated and important in the relationship. When bids are not noticed or ignored (there’s a turning away), or negatively responded to (there’s a turning against), bidding often dries up. As a result, conflict and distancing can occur, especially if this is an ongoing pattern.
In my work with couples, I use the approach of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. While we do not specifically talk about bids and the corresponding responses, we do work on building safety and closeness in the relationship, which results in more bidding and turning towards. Often I will ask clients to slow down and notice what is going on in the room with both themselves and their partner. While the process is more complex than slowing and noticing, the ultimate goal is to guide the couple towards greater reaching towards one another and turning towards in response. The conflicts lessen and closeness can again begin to build.
What about the little dog?
How is the idea of bidding and turning illustrated by my story of the little dog?
In the case of the little dog, her first bid (looking out the window at us) was a simple request. Here I am, notice me. We responded to her bid, by looking back and smiling, a turning toward. Then she made a more complex bid by walking to the door of the shop. It was like she was saying, you seem like nice folks, please come in and look around. We again turned toward by entering the store, petting her, and browsing at the merchandise. The dog was happy that we made a purchase and we were happy with our new soaps. More importantly, the experience left a good feeling for us all and we enjoyed the rest of the day.
How therapy can help
If you are in a relationship that has lost its closeness and vigor and you find that either bidding has diminished or the turning has turned become negative, counseling can help. My goal with couples is to create a safe space where each person can begin to share more about his or her internal world and feel more known and accepted. In the knowing and accepting, a greater bond is built and couples can more easily weather the inevitable storms of life.