How We Connect Emotionally

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Excerpted from

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

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When you turn toward a bid, it helps the bidder to feel good about himself or herself, and about the interaction you're having. Consequently the bidder welcomes more interaction, typically leading to more bids and more positive responses from both sides.

I like to compare such exchanges to an improvised jazz duet. Neither musician knows exactly where the piece is going, but they get their cues by tuning in to one another. One musician's set of notes is a bid that stimulates musical ideas in the other musician. On his own, neither could create the magic that happens as a result of their collaboration. The music they create together takes on a life of its own, born of their positive, willing interaction.

Turning toward leads to the growth and development of healthy partnerships in all kinds of relationships. Children who habitually turn toward their playmates form friendships more easily. Siblings who turn toward one another early on are more likely to stay close for life. Coworkers find it easier to collaborate on projects. Married couples and other pairs have fewer conflicts.

Turning toward leads to fewer conflicts, because the partners in a relationship are having the conversations they need to have-the conversations where they demonstrate their interest and concern for each other. With such high levels of interest expressed, there's simply less static in the air. People see evidence that their friends, coworkers, and loved ones are there for them and care for them. They have fewer problems to fight about.

Our research into the emotional lives of families shows that parents who have fewer conflicts create better environments for their children. Kids from such families are likely to be more attentive and do better in school than kids whose families don't have these habits. They're more apt to soothe themselves when upset, get along better with other children, and have fewer bouts of colds and flu.

A study of young-adult siblings, conducted in our labs by Joann Wu Shortt, showed that brothers and sisters who turn toward one another in conversation are more likely to maintain close, supportive, satisfying relationships.

Studies like these conducted in the workplace show that coworkers who consistently turn toward one another form more productive work teams, with higher morale.

We saw many delightful examples of couples turning toward one another in the marriage lab. Sometimes the bids were quite playful. One husband bopped his wife gently with a rolled-up newspaper, saying, "I've been meaning to do that all day." She reciprocated by rolling up her own paper bat and chasing him playfully around the couch. Another wife charmed her husband by copying a particularly silly gesture he made during dinner. The man had picked up an artichoke leaf, bit off the edible part of it. and then slammed the remnant down on the table. "I'm drinking shots," he said playfully. Without any prodding, his wife picked up a leaf and did the same thing, eliciting a broad smile from her husband. Then he took another turn, acting as if he'd been challenged. "Slap 'em down!" he said. She followed suit, saying, "Chew 'em up! Slap 'em down! Rawhide!" And the two ceremoniously continued to eat the entire artichoke this way. The game they had invented was totally original, spontaneous, and fun.

As stated earlier, such playfulness is extremely good for relationships. What does it require? A willingness to turn toward another's sense of silliness, give oneself over to the moment, and have a little bit of fun.

While baking cookies, your ten-year-old reaches for a canister of flour from the top shelf and accidentally spills it, covering himself and much of the kitchen in a cloud of white stuff. Delighted at his own snowmanlike appearance, he starts to laugh. Now you've got a choice. You can express irritation at the mess or you can turn toward his silliness and share the laugh.

You and a coworker are discussing a serious work-related problem when she realizes that, without meaning to, she's just made a truly funny pun. This seems like no time for frivolity, and yet she appears to be having a pretty good time. You can stop working for a moment and laugh with her. Or you can forge seriously ahead, focusing exclusively on the problem at hand.

Making the second choice-that is, turning toward one another's sense of humor in everyday situations-bolsters your relationships while making life together a lot more fun.

One husband in our studies appeared to have just the opposite inclination, but he surprised me. He was an engineer with a very staid, serious personality. But he adored his wife and would go to extreme lengths to tickle her funny bone. In fact, he once trained his pet beagle to sit on its haunches and duck its head so that it looked just like the Peanuts cartoon dog, Snoopy, posed on top of his doghouse as a vulture. Then, one Sunday morning, before his wife came down for breakfast, the man propped the dog on top of the refrigerator, crawled up there with him, and, clad only in his underwear, struck a similar pose. When his wife entered the kitchen and saw her beloved and his dog hovering near the ceiling like buzzards, she literally fell on the floor laughing. That, in my opinion, was the ultimate in playful bids. Not all playful bids have to be this elaborate, of course. But the more you can tap in to each other's sense of humor and joy, the stronger your relationship becomes.

Of course, not all bids for connection are so good-natured and playful. As we stated earlier, people sometimes camouflage their bids in expressions of anger, fear, and sadness. Rather than invitations to play, these bids are more likely to come in the form of a complaint, criticism, or lament. Such negative bids are hard even to recognize, much less respond to. And once you recognize them, you've got to muster the patience, creativity, and trust it takes to turn toward the bidder with a helpful response.

But if you want to build solid, long-term relationships, you've got to be willing to turn toward each other's bids in all sorts of circumstances. That's why marriage vows include phrases like "for better or worse." That's why people shun the idea of a "fair-weather friend." We long for relationships with people who will stick by us even when we're tired, crabby, fearful, depressed, or frustrated.

Remember, our research shows that the less people turn toward one another, the less satisfying their relationships are.

People can turn toward, turn away, or turn against all sorts of bids for connection-even those bids that appear hostile or off-putting. Take a look at the examples in the chart on page 55. As you read these responses, you may think turning toward is a great ideal to strive for. but it would be impossible to do all the time, especially given all the pressures so many of us face. True, we all face competing demands: the coworker who could use your ear at exactly the same time you're supposed to pick your kids up from the babysitter; the sister who calls with a marital crisis just as you're leaving for that long-planned romantic weekend. Nobody has the emotional stamina to turn toward other people's needs twenty-four hours a day. seven days a week.




Tags: Marriage

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