What do we need to do to connect to each other? How do we get disconnected and why do we have such a hard time reconnecting? Much of it has to do with our fight-or-flight system. We are designed to help each other regulate our emotions in intimate relationships. This starts in infancy. Our mothers (or other primary caretaker) played "looking at you" games by making faces with you, mirroring your face back to you, playing peek-a-boo and doing a variety of things to get you to be more excited and then helping you to calm down.
Some of us handled this better than others and some of us had mothers who were better at it than others. This interpersonal emotional regulation game continues throughout our lives. As adults, we're supposed to be able to do a significant part of this through self-regulation. If we struggle with this in some situations, for one reason or another, our relationships struggle and sometimes fail.
Few of us struggle with physiological needs. Some of us do struggle with safety needs at times. Most of us struggle with love and belonging regularly and this leaves us unhappy and underdeveloped in a number of ways.
What does self-regulation and helping each other emotionally regulate have to do with connection, disconnection and reconnecting? They are connected by the fact that when we become dysregulated, we become disconnected because we are lost in fight-or-flight. You're not connected because your focus is increasing on "surviving the moment." You have a hard time paying attention and listening. You're not able to think well. This is not because you're not trying hard enough. It's because you physically can't.
The Emotional Bank Account
You can think about where your relationship currently is by imagining it like a bank account. You have one for your significant other, and they have one for you. When something's going well, or you do something that's appreciated, you make a deposit. The things you do to show that you care for, admire, are grateful for or support the other person become deposits. When things go poorly, or you do something offensive or hurtful, you make a withdrawal. Ignoring, not engaging with or taking advantage of the other person become withdrawals. How much of a deposit you're credited for or now much you're debited for depends on something that's like your current credit score. The higher your score the more credit you're likely to get and the less debiting you're likely to suffer.
According to John Gottman, it takes five deposits to make up for one withdrawal. Your emotional bank accounts have some very serious fees. Just like in the real world, you get better credit when you have more in the bank. The best way to build that balance is with small deposits made on a regular basis. The bank usually isn't happy with attempts to make large deposits all at once. They can be refused, like a bounced check, and you'll wind up being charged fees like a withdrawal instead. Unlike large deposits, it's surprisingly easy to make a huge withdrawal and drain your account or have it frozen.
Bids are an important way to make small deposits every day. Repair attempts can prevent serious withdrawals. Validation and invalidation also affect whether you get a credit or a debit from you account. So, we're going to look at these in turn.
We all offer what Dr. John Gottman calls bids to each other every day. Bids to connect often look like one of us making a comment to the other. You might say, "It's beautiful outside. Look at how blue the sky is today!" The other person might "accept" the bid by joining you in looking at the sky or making a significant positive reply. The other person might "ignore" your bid by not responding to it or might "reject" the bid by making negative, dismissive or hostile remarks to you.
Other bids might look like asking a question: "How'd the meeting go?", "Do you want to go out for dinner?" or "Would you grab the salt off the table?" A bid might even look like your partner letting out an audible sigh while they read an email or the way they look at you when they get off the phone. Bids are all the things we do to get another persons attention with the hope of getting a response.
Dr. Gottman found dramatically different patterns in the responses to bids between successful and unsuccessful couples. Successful couples turned toward each other in 86% of bids. Unsuccessful couples did it only 33% of the time. Happy couples also bid more than 50% more often.
Dr. Gottman found couples break up most often because of the resentment and distance that builds up over time when partners keep turning away from bids. One person who learned this wrote: "I take the time to make more bids. But more importantly, I pay attention to his bids. I put down my phone, and I listen."
Dr. Gottman describes a repair attempt as "any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control." A repair attempt is a special kind of bid. It's a bid that might effectively say, "I made a mistake. Can I have a do-over?" or "I don't like what just happened. Let's do something different." It's a bid to reconnect after something has gone wrong. It might be because you did something, the other person did something or something else that just got in the way has left you disconnected.
A repair attempt might be an apology, but a lot of other things could be, too. An old joke, a goofy smile or even a simple well timed "I love you" could be one. The Gottman Repair Checklist is attached to this handout. It has dozens of ideas for a variety of situations.
Validation is another way to connect and stay connected to someone. It's a way of communicating and expressing empathy. When we validate someone, we tell them that we recognize what they're feeling and that feeling that way makes sense. Here are a few examples from Michael Sorensen:
- "Wow, that would be confusing."
- "He really said that? I'd be angry too!"
- "Ah, that is so sad."
- "I totally get why you feel that way. I've been in a situation like that before and it was rough."
- "You have every right to be proud. That was a major accomplishment!"
- "I'm so happy for you! You've worked incredibly hard on this. It must feel amazing."
In many situations, people simply want their feelings to be heard and accepted. They aren't looking for advice. They don't need to have a problem solved. They just want to know somebody else knows what they feel like and that it's OK. This is more than just "venting." It's being recognized. Sorensen estimates 80-90% of conversations have at least one opportunity to validate. If your conversation is about more than just facts or pure business, there's almost certain to be something to validate.
A validating conversation typically has 4 parts. It starts with listening for feelings and not just the facts of what happened to who or for what needs to be fixed. The person you're talking to may never use a single emotion word, but you can probably make a good guess about what they feel. If they aren't making it clear how they feel, take a shot to check it out, "It sounds like you're ___________." or "I think I hear a lot of ___________ in what you said. Are you ___________?" You could also say something like, "If that happened to me, I think I'd feel ___________. Is that how you feel?"
Once you've identified the feeling, you can start the next step and validate it. The validating part is where you make it clear you get why they feel that way, even if you don't agree with them. It might sound something like: "I get why that would hurt. There you are, in one of the happiest moments of your life, and they didn't really support you." or "I get why you're mad. I said I'd do it last week and it still isn't done."
If you can't really honestly relate to how someone is feeling, don't try to fake it. "I don't know what to say. I can only imagine how painful that must be." or "I am so sorry. I can't even imagine what you must be going through right now." are validating ways to say you can recognize how big the emotions must be and that they are totally justified.
Step 3 is not always required. If it's appropriate to do it, ask if you can make an observation, share your point of view, give some advice or offer help. This might look like: "How can I help?", "Is there anything I can do?", "May I tell you how I see it?" or "Can I tell you what I'd try?" It may also be better to do this after you've asked them what they tried or are thinking about trying. Remember many times people just want to be heard. They aren't looking for help or advice.
Like step 3, step 4 may not be required. If your interaction is brief, you may not need to validate the way the person is feeling again. Many times though, it's a good way to wrap things up and show them your empathy and understanding again. It might look something like: "I really don't envy you. That's a tough situation. It sounds to me like you have a good plan, though. Good luck with it!", "Again, my deepest condolences. You're going through a really hard time. Please remember that I'm here for you." or "Hey, congratulations again! You have every right to be proud. I'm really happy for you."
If someone has been telling you deeper or more sensitive things, step 4 might look something like this: "It's not easy to talk about things like that. I really admire your courage to bring it up and appreciate you sharing it with me.", "I really appreciate you opening up to me. It means a lot." or "Thank you for saying something. I'm sure it was hard bringing this up, especially since you couldn't know how I would react." Acknowledging their vulnerability and trust in you is important to your relationship.
You can invalidate someone in any number of ways: not paying attention, giving minimal responses, being rude, judgmental or dismissive, walking away or doing anything else that tells another person how they feel or what they think really doesn't matter to you. When you invalidate, you instantly disconnect another person. You may also help create anger. You at least help create hurt feelings.
Telling someone to "calm down", "just get over it" or that it's "not a big deal" are common ways we can invalidate. Telling someone that you've been through worse, giving them quick but obvious advice or saying they just should have done something else are invalidating, as are quickly changing the subject or turning the focus onto yourself.
Here's a list of invalidating expressions from Michael Sorensen:
- "You'll be fine."
- "It could be worse!"
- "At least it's not __________."
- "Just put a smile on your face and tough it out."
- "Don't worry. Things will work out."
- "Stop complaining. You're not the only one who's hurting."
- "It's not that big of a deal."
Questions for Journaling
- How much attention do you pay to how others might have felt when they tell you about something that happened?
- How quick are you to try to solve problems when someone it telling you about a situation? Do you try to tell them everything will be OK?
- Tell about a time when you really felt listened to? What made it different?
- Who do you have the hardest time listening to? What makes it difficult?
The Gottman Institute, Invest in Your Relationship: The Emotional Bank Account
The Gottman Institute, The Easiest Way to Improve Your Relationship
The Gottman Institute, Relationship Repair That Works
The Potential State, Emotional Bids – The Concept That Will Improve Your Relationship's Communication
Stan Tatkin, Relationships Are Hard, But Why? (TEDxKC)
John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert (2015)
John Gottman, Ph.D. and Joan DeClaire, The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships (2002)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (2012)
Patricia Love, Ed.D. and Steven Stosny, Ph.D., How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (2008)
Michael S. Sorensen, I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships (2017)
Terence T. Gorski, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy (1993)
Quote of the Week
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.
Verse of the Week
Know this, my beloved brothers: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to get angry.
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to begin to see opportunities to validate and connect. Help me recognize bids to connect and opportunities to repair disconnections. I want to start making the lives and relationships around me happier and healthier. I really want to understand others better. I want more insight into how the people I care about think and into what they find important. I want to be a better parent and partner. Amen.