“A healthy relationship between couples is based on the way they develop a connection through trust, mutual respect, honesty, and good communication. A great or bad relationship simply doesn’t happen overnight. It all depends on your connection with your partner.”
“Feed and clothe a human infant but deprive him of emotional contact [and] he will die.” – A General Theory of Love
Matt and Evalin fight about everything under the sun. Evalin tells Matt, “you’re a slob. It’s not hard to pick up your clothes off the floor and put it in the hamper.” Matt responds, “you shouldn’t be talking. You’re a space cadet who always forgets snacks I need for work when you’re at the grocery store.”
What is this couple really fighting about? Like most couples, they are fighting about nothing. The content of their fight doesn’t matter as much as what’s underneath their words. They are fighting due to the emotional disconnection that creates a chasm of misunderstanding between them.
Conflict is the inflammation of a lack of emotional connection from a partner. Research confirms that the erosion of a relationship begins with the absence of emotional support.
Attachment: The Heart of Connection
Thousands of studies in developmental psychology with a child and a mother, research on attachment and insights from neuroscience highlight the fact that in relationships, we are truly interdependent.
All of us are born helpless and dependent, and the only healthy way to embrace this vulnerability is to reach out and embrace each other. Attachment theory states that our primary relationships with our parents create a model for how our adult relationships should be. But some of us had parents who neglected us, criticized us, or were unpredictably available. As a result, we love and accept love the way we experience love growing up.
- If your parents were emotionally available, you developed a secure way of relating to others. You feel comfortable being close or apart from your partner and can express what you need in a relationship.
- If your parents were unpredictably available, you developed an anxious way of relating to others, and often blame yourself for your partner’s unavailability. To re-establish an emotional connection, you might make demands of your romantic partner or text/call excessively. This kind of behavior can cause your partner to do the very thing you’re scared they’ll do: withdraw.
- If your parents neglected you, you developed the belief that you had to fend for yourself. You don’t like getting emotionally close with your romantic partner for long. You often numb yourself and withdraw, leaving you with a track record of failed relationships.
When partners are emotionally available and are able to discuss both the good and bad things in life, the couple’s attachment bond creates a safe haven that makes both partners feel safe, calm, and emotionally connected. This loving relationship gives us a secure base to expand our sense of self and increase our confidence.
When our partners are emotionally unavailable or verbally attack us, our hearts begin to panic. Our thoughts make movies of our partner abandoning or rejecting us. As a result, our attachment alarm goes off and we either demand our partner to meet our needs or withdraw from the relationship, putting the bond into a toxic tailspin of panic and insecurity.
The Attachment Radar
When we become attached to our partners, we develop an attachment radar that determines whether our partner is emotionally available and connected to us.
The way we determine if our partner is connected to us is through what Dr. Gottman calls “bids” for connection. A bid can seem as meaningless as saying “gosh it’s raining so hard today,” to as meaningful as “I need you.” A bid can also be a gesture such as a wink, a squeeze of the hand, or offering to carry something.
Verbal bids for connection:
- “While you’re up, could you grab the salsa, please?”
- “You’re lookin’ sexy this morning. I can’t wait to see you tonight!”
- “I blew the presentation I had today.”
Nonverbal bids for connection:
- Affectionate touch – a hug, a gentle neck rub, a squeeze of the hand
- Facial expressions – winking, smiling, sticking out tongue in a playful way
- Kind gestures – opening a door, offering to carry something
A bid for connection is anything that invites your partner to respond to you. We do this constantly. What a bid is really asking is “can I trust you?” “Will you be there for me?” “Do you value me?” In Matt and Evalin’s conflicts, this is the underlying message they are fighting over.
Movies and television have distorted the concepts of romance and what makes a relationship passionate. In the real world, love is kept alive in the moments that let your partner know they are valued during the daily grind of everyday life.
The Three Connection Choices
Every bid in a relationship creates a connection moment. When one partner makes a bid for connection, the other’s response is to either connect or to not connect.
After studying 3,000 couples, Dr. Gottman has uncovered that we respond in three ways. We either turn towards our partner’s bid and build our relationship, or we turn away, or we turn against our partners and sever the emotional connection.
“Did you notice the sailboat? It was beautiful!”
“I have a big presentation that could get me promoted today. Wish me luck.”
“I wish you would pick up your clothes off the floor.”