Turning Towards Instead of Away

By Zach Brittle, LMHC // April 1, 2015

Let’s say your eccentric uncle Kevin gives you $10,000 on your wedding day. The only catch is that you have to invest it for six years with one of two firms that Kevin suggests. Firm A is well respected on Wall Street for both its ethics and its returns, and most clients are very happy even with sometimes modest gains. Firm B guarantees they’ll squander your money and blame you for it. Which one would you choose?

Or let’s say that on your wedding day, you get a diagnosis of a rare blood disease that usually kills its victims within six years. Your wacky aunt Cathy had that same disease and she knows of the only two doctors in the world that work with it. One doctor is actively doing research, testing new treatments, and curing patients with great success. The other is a drunk. Which doctor would you choose?

Or let’s say that on your wedding day, the universe starts a giant egg timer set for six years. When the egg timer goes off, you’ll either be divorced or you won’t. You’ve heard the rumor that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but Kevin and Cathy know some tips that can increase your odds of making it. More importantly, they know of a single strategy that would virtually guarantee that you would divorce before the timer went off. Would you want to know it?

Of course you would. You would invest with Firm A. You would choose the sober doctor. And you will do whatever it takes to ensure that you protected yourself from divorce. As it turns out, your aunt and uncle are onto something: there really is a secret.

As part of his research, Dr. Gottman conducted a study with newlyweds and then followed up with them six years later. Many of the couples had remained together. Many had divorced. The couples that stayed married were much better at one thing — the third level of the Sound Relationship House, Turn Towards Instead of Away. At the six-year follow up, couples that had stayed married turned towards one another 86% of the time. Couples that had divorced averaged only 33% of the time. The secret is turning towards.

I think this is a pretty incredible piece of data. It suggests that there is something you can today that will dramatically change the course of your relationship. More importantly, it suggests that there is something that you can not do that will lead to its demise. So, how do you turn towards instead of away? In order to understand turning, you have to first understand bids.

A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. Bids show up in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help. In general, women make more bids than men, but in the healthiest relationships, both partners are comfortable making all kinds of bids.

Bids can get tricky, however, and admittedly I sometimes miss more bids than I don’t. Indeed many men struggle in this regard, so it’s important to pay attention. Bids usually have a secondary layer – the true meaning behind the words. Call it the the difference between text and subtext. A few examples to get your brain going:

How do I look?Can I have your attention?

Let’s put the kids to bed.Can I have your help?

I talked to my sister today.Will you chat with me?

Did I tell you the one about…?Will you enjoy me?

Want to cuddle?Can I have your affection?

Want to play Cribbage?Will you play with me?

I had a terrible lunch meeting today.Will you help me destress?

To “miss” a bid is to “turn away.” Turning away can be devastating. It’s even more devastating than “turning against” or rejecting the bid. Rejecting a bid at least provides the opportunity for continued engagement and repair. Missing the bid results in diminished bids, or worse, making bids for attention, enjoyment, and affection somewhere else.

It is important that you learn to recognize bids and that you commit to making them to one another. Make the word “bids” part of your conversation and perhaps name your bids toward one another. It’s okay to say, “I’m making a bid for attention now” as you get to know each other in this early phase of your relationship. You can also practice discerning subtext together. Pick a show that is new to you both and watch it on mute. See if you can interpret the bids that the characters are making based only on non-verbals. Once you start to get intentional about your bids, you can concentrate on “turning towards.”

Turning towards starts with paying attention. Your work on bids will come in handy here. Simply recognizing that a bid has been made opens the door to response. If you’ve really been paying attention, you’ll respond to both the text and the subtext. As bids get more complicated, so will the nature of turning toward. For now, start simple. Take an inventory of the bids and turning in your relationship and share your responses with one another.

  • What do I know about how I make bids?
  • Could or should I get better at making bids? How?
  • How good am I at recognizing the difference between text and subtext?
  • What keeps me from making bids?
  • What is my impulse for turning?
  • Do I turn away or against more often than I turn towards?
  • When it comes to turning towards, am I closer to 33% or 86%?
  • What does it feel like when my partner doesn’t turn towards me?
  • How can I get better at turning towards?

As you continue moving through life together, you will undoubtedly have to risk heading into more vulnerable territory. This will be easier if you’ve committed to building a solid friendship based on Building Love MapsSharing Fondness and Admiration, and Turning Towards Instead of Away. Your eccentric uncle Kevin and wacky aunt Cathy would be proud.



What "Turning Against' Really Means 

By Ellie Lisitsa

In our post on Monday, we discussed Dr. Gottman’s findings on the deeply destructive nature of “turning against” your partner’s bids. “Turning against” or “away” describes the behaviors in your interactions between you and your partner that, upon accumulation, categorically spell disaster for your relationship. Today, we would like to part the storm clouds a bit by offering you findings from Dr. Gottman’s research about the true causes of much of the behavior we described on Monday – the real reasons for which your partner may “turn against” you, lash out unexpectedly, or say things that they don’t really mean. We share this information with you in hopes that it will help you to learn the ways in which you can manage conflict constructively. We would like, in short, to offer you help in coping with the most trying interactions in your relationship.  

The first step in building the skills that Dr. Gottman teaches in his marital therapy is understanding – answering the question that may come up when such interactions unexpectedly throw themselves into your life – when your partner snaps at you out of nowhere. Dr. Gottman has discovered that there is an enormous difference between what you think your partner is saying when they “turn against” your bids and what their behavior’s cause usually is! Here is what Dr. Gottman has found “turning against”  says and what it actually means.

“Turning Against” Says:

  • Your need for attention makes me angry.
  • I feel hostile towards you.
  • I don’t respect you.
  • I don’t value you or this relationship.
  • I want to hurt you.
  • I want to drive you away.

“Turning Against” Usually Means: In a direct quote from Dr. Gottman himself, “Unlike ‘turning away’ responses, ‘turning against’ has a bite to it. It’s hard to hear such responses without thinking, ‘That’s mean’ or ‘That was uncalled for.’ Still, I doubt that most people who turn against their loved ones really intend to cause as much harm to their relationships as they do in these exchanges. Rather, they may simply have developed a personal style of relating that’s characteristically crabby or irritable.” Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed that such prickliness is often “the result of many factors, such as having too many demands on your time, not having enough peace of mind, or the lack of a satisfying purpose or direction for your life. Often it’s a spillover of self-criticism that has its origins in the distant past. The problem may also be biologically based irritability that is chemically related to depression.”

Whatever the source may be of your partner’s choice to “turn against” your bids for attention, affection, or support, it still hurts. Sometimes, it hurts a LOT. The build up of ignored bids can end up causing long-term problems in relationships. When your partner habitually responds to you by “turning against” your bids for connection, you feel that you can’t ask them for support and the two of you may drift apart entirely, because it feels impossible to sustain your relationship. Again, we have to stress: You are not alone! Hopefully understanding that the underlying causes for your partner’s behavior are rarely as malicious as they may feel, that what they say and what they mean are usually oceans apart, can help you to take these sudden attacks less personally. 

Of course, these words offer sparse comfort on their own – to understand is only the first step in the journey towards moving away from dangerous patterns of interaction. But it is a necessary first step. We will take you through the next steps (applying this new knowledge) in the next few weeks on The Gottman Relationship Blog. For more details, make sure to find a copy of Dr. Gottman’s bestselling books in a bookstore near you: The Relationship CureSeven Principles of Making Marriage Work, and of course, his new book, What Makes Love Last!