If you have read any of our blogs on marriage you probably remember the name John Gottman and the dreaded “Four Horseman”. Gottman is known for the Four Horsemen, but also how, in a healthy relationship, each negative exchange during conflict should be balanced by five positive ones. Gottman calls this the magic ratio. Two other ideas that people are not as familiar with are the idea of “repair” and a second idea of “emotional bids”.
The idea of “repair” is one that can change the atmosphere of a conflict from growing anger to friendliness. That’s what it is all about: how to deal with the inevitable difficult moments that come up in a relationship, what Gottman calls regrettable incidents. What this principle is all about is finding a way to stop the downward spiral and, failing that, having an effective recovery plan.
Repair can take the form of a softened voice, nonverbal gesture, peace offering (“Shall I make us a cup of tea?”), tension-breaking laugh, a silly joke, friendly appeal (“Let’s delete and redo”), or disarming acknowledgment (“I know what I’m saying is unfair” or “I know I’ve got that tone”).
The second idea is that of “emotional bids”. In a relationship, each partner has their own ways of reaching out to the other, whether by approaching the other romantically, with words or touch, or by sharing a thought. When a partner makes such a bid, the other one can turn toward, away, or against.
When I think of emotional bids, I think of the husband who might say to his wife, “Wow, look at those beautiful Christmas lights!” In response, his wife turns and says: “Yes, those are even better than the ones we saw last night?” Alternatively, she could have turned away (continue reading her magazine without looking up) or turned against (“Don’t bother me. I’m trying to read”).
Here’s what is amazing. If a comment as everyday and ordinary as “Wow, look at those Christmas lights!” is an emotional bid, it immediately becomes clear that we’re making such bids all the time, and without thinking of them as such. Dr. Dan Wile from the Gottman Institute calls us bid-making machines.
If our partner constantly responds to our bids by turning away or against, we’re going to stop making them. We stop being bid-making machines. We will disengage, lose much of our ability to give our partner the benefit of the doubt, and feel lonely. What we hope, of course, is that enough of the time we find ourselves wanting to make bids and wanting to respond positively to our partner’s bids.
Shift the conversation
What’s neat about the concepts of repair and emotional bids is that they direct attention to what happens moment-to-moment in a relationship. Partners repeatedly get caught in fighting and withdrawing and need ways to get out of those patterns. The conversation needs to shift from partners treating one another as enemies or strangers to treating one another as allies—in Gottman language, from turning away to turning towards.
The big task in a relationship is finding ever better ways to shift from fighting or withdrawing to intimate relating by making effective repair attempts and dealing with the aftermath of a fight or regrettable incident.
If you would like to read more about the Gottman method please click on our link.