The Relationship Cure, A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships by John M. Gottman, PhD and Joan DeClaire
The Relationship Cure (2002) prescribes a surprisingly simple solution to the problems that ail many of our relationships. Drawing on psychologist John M. Gottman’s extensive research, its insights and tips are equally applicable to relationships between romantic partners, friends, family members, and coworkers.
Learn the key to improving your relationships in every area of life.
“The relationship cure?” It sounds too good to be true. After all, no two relationships are the same; even insofar as we can generalize about them, they fall into many different categories. We have relationships with our romantic partners, friends, coworkers, family, and children. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of all these distinct groups, can there?
Well, yes and no. There definitely isn’t a magic pill that will fix your relationships in one fell swoop. But there are some general strategies you can learn to help you deal with them better.
How to use these strategies varies from relationship to relationship and from issue to issue, but the underlying principles are the same. And they all stem from the research and ideas you’re about to discover.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- the hidden messages behind our everyday acts of communication;
- how to respond to those messages to build closer relationships; and
- what one of the authors learned after building a place he called “the Love Lab.”
People don’t form close relationships by simply “opening up” to each other.
What’s the secret to having a happy, healthy, and close relationship with another person?
If you think it’s a willingness to share your deepest, most personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you’re not alone. Back in the early 1990s, many psychologists thought so too – including one of the authors. But then he conducted some research into the matter, and the results surprised both him and many others in the field of psychology.
The key message here is: People don’t form close relationships by simply “opening up” to each other.
In 1990, research psychologist Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues at the University of Washington set up an unusual scientific research center. They called it “the Love Lab.” On the inside, it looked like a normal studio apartment, with a kitchen, dining area, hide-away bed, TV, and waterfront views of a canal. Over the following year, they invited 60 married couples to spend a weekend in this cozy setting. Each couple was given one simple instruction: live life as you normally would.
Of course, there was a catch. The apartment was fitted out with four surveillance cameras and a two-way mirror, behind which observers watched the couples for 12 hours a day. The participants were also rigged with microphones and body sensors that watched for symptoms of stress, like increases in heart rate or levels of sweat.
Dr. Gottman collected hundreds of hours of video footage showing the couples’ everyday interactions in minute detail. He then reviewed the tape, searching for examples of partners baring their souls to one another. But though he looked and looked, he hardly found any instances of what psychologists call “self-disclosure.” Instead, most conversations went like this:
“Honey, could you grab me a cup of coffee?”
“Hey, check out this comic strip!”
“Shh, I’m trying to read.”
Pretty mundane stuff, right? That’s what Dr. Gottman thought, too. In fact, he feared the whole experiment had been a waste of time. But then, after reviewing the footage for a few months, he noticed something. The key to forming close relationships was staring him in the face, right there in all those banal conversations.
What mattered wasn’t so much what the couples were talking about, but how they were talking about it to each other. And it’s a lesson that applies to all relationships, whether romantic or otherwise.
Bids are the most fundamental units of emotional communication.
A wife asking her husband to get her a cup of coffee doesn’t seem like the stuff of great relationship drama. But put yourself in the position of the wife for a moment. Imagine that instead of saying “Sure, honey,” your husband responded by snapping, “Go get it yourself.”
Do you feel the difference? The first scenario reveals a nice domestic interaction – the sort of thing you’d witness in a loving home. The second is more like something you’d see in a playback reel called “Why We Got a Divorce.”
The difference comes down to what the authors call a “bid” and the way your partner responds to it.
The key message here is: Bids are the most fundamental units of emotional communication.
According to the authors, a bid is any attempt to establish an emotional connection with someone through verbal or nonverbal communication. It can be a question, like “Hey, did you see the game last night?” An exclamation, like “Wow, look at that sunset!” A gesture, such as offering someone a chair, or even just a facial expression, like a simple smile.
But whatever form it takes, and whatever its surface-level meaning, the underlying message of the bid remains the same. It says, “Hey, I want to connect with you.” The other person can then respond in one of three ways: turning toward, turning away from, or turning against the bid.
Imagine you’ve just read an interesting news article, and you want to share it with a friend. “Hey,” you say, “check this out.” That’s your bid. Now, imagine your friend puts down his phone and cheerfully asks, “What’s up?” That’s him turning toward your bid and responding positively to your attempt to establish a connection.
By contrast, imagine your friend continues staring at his phone, pretending not to hear you. Or he tries to change the subject by asking, “Do you know what time it is?” In that case, he’s turning away from your bid by ignoring or sidestepping it.
Finally, imagine he responds by saying, “Ugh, can’t you see I’m in the middle of something?” A negative reaction like this is turning against your bid.
Through his research, Dr. Gottman found that these sorts of bids, and the three types of response, represent the fundamental building blocks of emotional communication and human connection. And as you’ll see, these bids and bid-responses can make or break your relationships.
Bids usually contain hidden messages.
“How’s your day going? Do you have any plans this evening?” These aren’t exactly profound questions. In fact, they might seem like mere “small talk.” And yet, as bids to establish an emotional connection with someone, each can play a crucial role in strengthening or weakening that relationship.
The reason these questions are so important is that there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Imagine a romantic couple, Mary and Jeff, sitting on a sofa in their living room. Mary leans over to Jeff and says, “It’s a bit chilly in here, don’t you think?” This is her bid.
The key message is: Bids usually contain hidden messages.
To begin to decipher its hidden message, let’s look beneath the surface of this simple interaction.
See, it’s not that Mary just wants to tell Jeff that she’s cold, or find out if he agrees with her assessment of the temperature. Mary has an unstated objective: she’s hoping that Jeff will give her a cuddle. In other words, she’s bidding him to move closer to her, both literally and figuratively.
So why doesn’t she just say, “Hey, Jeff, give me a cuddle?” Well, sometimes we make overt bids. But, usually, we make them more subtle and vague – and for good reason. By framing her bid for physical affection as a statement about the temperature, Mary has a way to save face and feel less of a blow if Jeff rejects it. Imagine if she says, “Give me a cuddle,” and Jeff replies bluntly, “No, I’m not in the mood.” Ouch.
On the other hand, if he responds by tossing her a blanket, well, she’s still not getting what she really wants. But at least she’s getting something positive in return, and it’s a heck of a lot better than outright rejection.
Mary is also giving Jeff a way to smoothly decline her bid. Even if he knows she probably wants a cuddle, he doesn’t have to go through the awkwardness of saying no if he’d rather keep to himself. He can choose to interpret Mary’s statement literally and respond accordingly.
In other words, the vagueness of our bids is a feature, not a bug, and it often serves us well. Unfortunately, it can also lead to some problems, as we’re about to see.
The hidden messages of bids can be hard to interpret, so respond to them carefully.
So far, we’ve focused on some of the more straightforward bids that people might throw your way. Sure, there are hidden messages behind questions like “It’s a bit chilly in here, don’t you think?” But you don’t exactly need a PhD in psychology to decipher them. The hidden messages aren’t that hidden.
If only all bids were that simple, relationships would be easy to navigate. But, in reality, bids are often difficult to respond to. In fact, they often don’t seem like bids at all.
The key message here is: The hidden messages of bids can be hard to interpret, so respond to them carefully.
To one degree or another, all of us have feelings and desires that we don’t know how to express – at least not constructively. And if we don’t understand our own emotions, it stands to reason that we’d have a hard time communicating them to other people.
When a child throws a temper tantrum because her father refuses to buy her a toy, you might think the tantrum is an expression of anger at not getting what she wants, but it could also be a bid for her father’s comfort.
When a husband asks his wife a loaded question – “Why don’t you ever call me when you’re at work?” – it’s not just an accusation; it’s a bid for more communication. Poorly expressed, but a bid nonetheless.
When feelings of sadness, anger, or fear are involved, people’s bids can sound like laments, criticisms, or complaints. And they can be difficult to recognize and respond to. The key is to remember this and instead look beneath the surface of what the other person is saying.
Imagine you’re the father or wife in these examples. Instead of defensively explaining why you won’t buy the toy, give the child a hug and acknowledge her unmet need for comfort. Instead of complaining that you’re too busy at the office to make personal calls, arrange a set time when you’ll briefly touch base with your partner and acknowledge his need for communication.
By focusing on the underlying bid, you’re more likely to find a way to respond that will build connections – turning toward the bid, instead of away from or against it.
To understand people’s bids, it helps to know where they’re coming from.
As we’ve seen, bids are often muddled expressions of unmet emotional needs and desires, which may be unclear even to the people expressing them. Perhaps that psychology PhD would be useful after all!
But short of enrolling in a grad-school program, you can still give yourself a major leg up in interpreting other people’s bids – you just need a better understanding of their emotional makeup.
In this blink, we’ll look at one way to gain that.
The key message is: To understand people’s bids, it helps to know where they’re coming from.
Have you ever gotten into a fight with someone and felt that the two of you were really arguing with a third person who wasn’t in the room? That’s what it was like for Rick and Sarah, a couple that came to Dr. Gottman for therapy.
When Rick was a child, his mother left him, and so he was raised by his grandmother. She resented having to look after him and constantly told him he was worthless. As a result, he developed a fragile sense of self-esteem – which came to plague his relationship with Sarah.
Every time she made a complaint about his behavior, it was as if Rick heard his grandmother’s voice. Sarah would get mad at him for turning on the television instead of talking to her – but instead of hearing a message about Sarah not liking the TV, or wanting to spend more time with him, Rick heard her say, “You can’t do anything right!”
As for Sarah, one of seven siblings, she’d grown up in a poor family and was taught to keep her personal needs to herself. So she did just that in her relationship with Rick – at least for a week or two, after which her frustrations would explode in a litany of complaints. In the case of the TV, what she really wanted was to have a closer connection with Rick, but unfortunately she expressed this desire in a way that sounded bitter and accusatory.
Like Rick and Sarah, we all carry baggage from our past relationships into the present. It’s what the authors call our emotional heritage, and it affects our interactions with other people, whether we realize it or not. So it stands to reason that the more you know about someone’s background, the more you’ll understand where they’re coming from, and the more successful you’ll be at interpreting their bids.
When making bids, reflect on your underlying needs, and express them through soft language.
Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far. First, simple interactions between people are often bids for emotional connection. Second, these bids often contain hidden messages. And third, these underlying meanings are often shaped by a person’s emotional heritage and past relationships.
If you remember this and try to learn more about the important people in your life, you’ll become better at responding to their bids in constructive ways.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care when making your own bids and should rely on other people to decipher what you mean. There are things you can do to make yourself more likely to be understood, and in a way that meets your emotional needs – a win-win for everyone!
The key message is: When making bids, reflect on your underlying needs, and express them through soft language.
Whenever you’re trying to get something in life, it helps to know what you want. The same is true for bids. The next time you find yourself about to launch into an argument or make a complaint, stop and ask yourself: What’s my unmet emotional need here?
Often, it will be rooted in a fundamental human impulse, like the need to feel that you and your loved ones are safe. For example, if a wife is skeptical of her husband’s decision to buy a firearm for their household, it could be that she’s worried about what will happen if one of the kids gets hold of it.
If that’s the case, rather than make a bald statement about guns being dangerous, she should make a bid expressing her fear. That way, instead of getting into a heated argument about the right to bear arms, the couple can address her concerns and find a compromise, like buying a lockbox to keep the gun stored out of reach.
Softening a bid also goes a long way to making it more palatable. Once, one of the authors was waiting to have dinner with his family, but his wife was busy working in the basement. “Hey, Julie,” he shouted harshly. “Stop working! It’s family time!” Understandably, Julie felt attacked and criticized; and she responded defensively, saying, “I can’t! I’ve got to get this done!”
Instead, the author could have opened his bid by calling out, “Hey, Julie, we miss you! Come up and have dinner with us as soon as you can.” Imagine how much more positive Julie’s response would have been.
If you get your initial bid and bid-response right, you give yourself more opportunity for connection.
The initial bid and bid-response that kick off the first rounds of emotional communication between two people are a bit like the beginnings of a friendly game of tennis. You can think of them as the serve and return volley. If either player mishits this first shot, the game could come to a sudden halt. But if they’re successful, the action is just getting started.
The key message here is: If you get your initial bid and bid-response right, you give yourself more opportunity for connection.
To understand this better, let’s do a little play-by-play analysis of some emotional communication in action. Two coworkers, Jim and Linda, are in the office. Jim comes over to Linda’s desk and makes his initial bid, asking, “So, do you have any plans for lunch?”
Linda replies that she’s brought something from home and is going to eat outside. Understanding the hidden meaning of the bid, she turns toward it. “Want to join me?” she asks.
“Sure,” says Jim. Then he ratchets the bid up a notch: “I’m going to the vending machine to get a drink. You want anything?”
“Yeah, maybe a Coke,” Linda replies, turning toward Jim’s bid once again. “Oh, and I’ll find those photos I told you about. I want to show them to you!”
“Great!” says Jim, “I’d love to see them!”
Notice how the positive responses build on each other, bringing Jim and Linda closer together. Now, let’s see what might happen if, instead, Linda turns against Jim’s initial bid.
“Have any plans for lunch?” Jim asks.
“Lunch?! In this office? Who’s got the time?” Linda snaps, continuing to stare at her computer screen and leaving poor Jim crestfallen.
At this point, Jim might mumble something about having lunch together another time, and Linda might respond with a short “Yeah, sure.” But for all intents and purposes, the communication between them is over – as is any chance to connect. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the earlier versions of Jim and Linda are sitting on a park bench, laughing at photos of her dog and building a relationship.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: there’s a lot more to bids than first meets the eye. The way they are made and responded to can make a huge difference in how relationships unfold.
You don’t have to accept a bid at face value to respond positively.
“Uh-oh,” you might be thinking. “Does this mean I have to accept every lunch invitation that comes my way? It sounds like if I decline a bid, or even just fail to pick up on one, I’ll be potentially damaging my relationships and pushing people away from me.”
Don’t worry. The situation is far less extreme than that. Fortunately, you can still turn toward other people’s bids and build connections with them while at the same time declining the requests you’re unwilling, unable, or simply uninterested in accepting. It all comes down to how you respond.
The key message here is: You don’t have to accept a bid at face value to respond positively.
Let’s go back to Jim and Linda and their lunch plans. In this version, it turns out Linda really doesn’t have time to take a break today, so she can’t accept Jim’s bid at face value – that is, as an invitation to have lunch together on this particular day.
But that doesn’t mean she can’t respond positively and turn toward the bid. “Oh, I’d really love to have lunch with you,” she could say, “but I’m so swamped with work right now. Maybe tomorrow? Or we could grab a coffee and catch up after work.”
Notice how Linda affirms her desire to connect with Jim even while she declines this particular opportunity. She also offers some alternative ways for them to connect. In other words, instead of shutting the metaphorical door between them with a blunt rejection, she leaves it open and calls Jim closer.
Jim can now carry on with his bid, agreeing to one of her alternatives and building on his initial overture. For instance, he could offer to bring her something to eat, giving her more time to power through that mountain of work.
The same lesson applies to any bid that asks you to do something that you can’t or simply don’t want to do. Instead of worrying about accepting it at face value, or saying no and damaging your relationship, use the opportunity to reassure the other person of your desire to connect.
Remember the game of tennis from earlier? Saying no in this way is what allows you to keep that ball of friendly communication in the air and flying back and forth across the net.
Our patterns of responding to people’s bids can have a big impact on our relationships in the long run.
Think back to your most recent interactions with the people in your life. Did you turn toward, away from, or against someone’s bid?
Whatever your response, don’t lose too much sleep over it. Whether you react to a bid positively or negatively, a one-off exchange won’t save or destroy your relationship. Relationships get built up or worn down over time, through many bids and bid-responses.
But your actions do add up, so while one harsh word probably won’t do much harm, don’t fall into a habit of harshness.
The key message is: Our patterns of responding to people’s bids can have a big impact on our relationships in the long run.
If a relationship is marked by a pattern of one member or both members responding negatively to the other, they’re likely to drift apart. If the pattern is positive, they’ll tend to become closer.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, turning toward each other’s bids leads to more opportunities to connect, while turning away or against them does the opposite. As we saw with Jim and Linda, it can spell the difference between having, or not having, that lunch with your coworker.
Second, just as bids convey hidden messages, so too do our responses to them. If you turn toward a bid, you’re implicitly saying, “I value you. I like spending time with you.” But if you turn away from or against a bid, you’re potentially sending unintended messages, like “I don’t appreciate you” or “I want to hurt you.”
Put these messages on repeat and eventually you’ll have a pattern that sinks into the other person’s mind as a reflection of how you feel about them. If it’s positive, they’ll feel a lot of good will toward you, which can help when you come up against conflicts. But if it’s especially negative, they might end up feeling like you hate them and give up on making bids for connection altogether. After all, what’s the point?
It should come as no surprise, then, that a pattern of negative bid-responses is a strong predictor of marital problems. According to the authors’ research, in heterosexual marriages headed toward divorce, husbands negatively react to their wives’ bids for connection an astounding 82 percent of the time. In stable marriages, that figure drops to a mere 19 percent.
So no, you don’t have to get things right all the time – but most of the time is definitely a goal worth aiming for!
The key message in these summary:
If you analyze other people’s communications with you, you’ll see that they’re often making bids to connect. These bids may come in the form of vague language, or they may be disguised as complaints or criticism – so you’ll need to interpret them carefully. Whatever you do, remember that your choice to turn toward, away from, or against a bid is something that can have a major impact on your relationships.
Our individual bids and bid-responses add up over time, but to get the ball rolling you have to start somewhere. Will that lunch with your coworker lead to a lifelong friendship by itself? Probably not – but it could be the decisive first step to a deep and lasting relationship. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it wouldn’t have been built at all without that first brick. So don’t wait. Start building connections today!
About the Author
John Gottman, Ph.D., is world-renowned for his work on relationship stability and divorce prediction, involving the study of emotions, physiology, and communication. He was recently voted one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the PsychoTherapy Networker publication. His 35 years of breakthrough research on marriage, relationships and parenting has earned him numerous major awards.
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