A VALENTINE is a letter or token of affection sent to a person on St. Valentine's Day. Often, it simply refers to a sweetheart.
To have and keep a valentine - a sweetheart - as most people who have been in relationships will tell you, is not an easy task. And it is a task - one you must work at.
If you knew specifically what it was that holds relationships together, and you knew that it was within your control, would knowing those specifics change the way you behaved?
If you knew exactly the characteristics that drove married couples together rather than toward divorce, would you make every attempt you could to achieve and nurture those characteristics?
John Gottman and his team of relationship researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have discovered the answer, and it isn't what most people think, especially if they think what holds couples together is having similar values, interests, beliefs, and needs. Instead, it is bids and responses to bids.
Bids and responses to bids are all those interactions that we often take for granted on a daily basis that form the base - the emotional connectiveness, or glue - that holds relationships together.
What is a bid? It can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch, any single expression that says, "I want to feel connected to you."
A response to a bid is a positive or negative answer to somebody's request for emotional connection.
Let's say you have a joke you want to share with a relationship partner, or you are interested in gaining some affection, or you want to contradict an opinion he or she just shared with you, or you want to complain about your job? How do you do it?
To begin a conversation with another person, an emotional connection is necessary, but that connection, and the degree to which it will be available, is part of a larger context.
That larger context includes the hundreds of ordinary, day-to-day exchanges of information that preceded your current bid for connection.
The essential point regarding bids and responses to bids is that in successful relationships, bids for emotional connection are responded to positively.
Bids from either relationship partner are neither ignored nor dismissed, whether they are simple or mundane.
Often, it is the simple and mundane bids that weave the fabric that forms the backdrop for all future bids.
Just think for a second about the thousands of bids that take place daily when you are seeking empathy, respect, friendly conversation, sexual intimacy, forgiveness, or something else, just to fit in.
Think about all the times you want to be recognized, feel accepted, experience affection, or feel appreciated.
To be successful in any of these situations, you must gain the attention of the other person - so you make a bid for his attention or for her attention.
Complex, fulfilling relationships don't just appear out of nowhere, fully formed, well-developed, and successful.
Rather, they are developed one encounter at a time, bid after bid after bid. In the first example that follows, the bid is negative; in the next one it is positive:
1. Are we going to be able to go out Friday night, as we talked about last week?
You've got to be kidding. Weren't you listening to me? I have so much work to do.
2. Would you get me a beer while you're up?
No problem. Do you want anything else? Some popcorn, maybe?
The point is not the content, and the point has nothing to do with timing or circumstances.
The point is that a positive response to a bid typically leads to continued interaction.
Negative responses to bids will shut down communication.
Bids cease; relationships end.
How can two people with seemingly diverse values, interests, beliefs, and needs not only remain happy, but remain together as well?
If you closely check out their bidding process, there is no doubt you will discover an emotional connectiveness that both cements the partners and satisfies them with each other.
These two people will not only show an interest in each other's world, but they will understand how each other is feeling as well. The emotional connection rises above a similarity of values, interests, beliefs, and needs.
It's not that similarity of values, interests, beliefs, and needs isn't important, it's simply that emotional connectiveness is more important.
What are some ways you have to encourage bids?
First, focus on the people around you by noticing their bids and how you respond to them. Shift your attention from your own concerns to the concerns of others.
Second, set a positive tone as you begin conversations.
When bids begin negatively - "Why didn't you just do what I told you to do, when I told you to do it?" - with blame or criticism, the outcomes are predictable.
Mr. Gottman and his relationship researchers found they could predict the outcome of 15-minute conversations based on what happened in the first three minutes of those conversations.
Watch how you begin conversations. A soft, gentle beginning is likely to establish the proper framework.
Third, phrase any concerns you have as helpful complaints, not as harmful criticism.
Complaints focus on specific problems; criticism is judgmental and global often accompanied by attacks on a person's character, negative labels, and name calling.
When carefully lodged, complaints help others understand one another and solve problems.
There are three other ways to encourage bids.
Avoid becoming physically or emotionally overwhelmed. When you experience a pounding heart, sweaty hands, or irregular and shallow breathing, take a break of at least 20 minutes.
Avoid the "crabby habit of mind" of finding faults, mistakes, human weaknesses, foibles, and frailties in others.
Finally, hold the conversations you need to have. Self-disclose and connect.
Taking the risk of self-disclosure in trusting relationships where both partners are willing to talk about issues, express their feelings of fear, reluctance, or anxiety, brings couples closer together and moves relationships in positive directions.
Wanting a sweetheart is easy; keeping a sweetheart requires hard work.
Richard L. Weaver II is a retired professor of speech communication at Bowling Green State University.
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