Marriage expert and founder of the Gottman Institute, John Gottman discovered that small or seemingly insignificant things can lead to couples fighting.

Not to say that couples don't fight, but the fight isn't necessarily about the topic that started it. Typically, couples are arguing because someone is feeling hurt or neglected.

Bidding for Your Partner

What matters in a relationship is how partners respond to each other. Using data from a six-year follow-up study of newlywed couples, those who remained married turned toward their partner's bids for emotional connection 86% of the time in the lab, while those who divorced averaged 33%.

But what exactly is a bid? A bid is a request for attention or affection. A bid can be answered in either a positive or negative way. An act of turning towards the requesting partner, no matter how small or subtle, is a positive interaction. An act of turning away is a negative interaction.

Every interaction we have with our partner is collected into an Emotional Bank Account. The balance (happiness of the relationship) depends on the ratio of deposits and withdrawals.

Emotional Bank Account

The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how they manage their Emotional Bank Account.

If you think of your relationship happiness as a bank account, it makes sense that you would need to keep a positive balance in the account. Deposits are made when a partner creates a positive interaction or answers a bid from their partner in a positive way.

Easy ways to deposit into your partner's emotional bank account:

  • Put down your phone and listen when they talk
  • Give physical affection
  • Pay them a compliment
  • Express appreciation for them
  • Share an activity you both enjoy
  • Do a chore they usually manage
  • Fix them a snack
  • Take a walk together

Withdrawals are made when a partner creates a negative interaction or answers a bid from their partner in a negative way.

Examples of withdrawals from your partner's emotional bank account:

  • Neglecting to do a task you had agreed to do
  • Focusing more on your phone than your partner
  • Withholding physical affection
  • Criticizing or complaining
  • Taking their efforts for granted
  • Not spending any time together
  • Turning away from a bid

It's important to remember that the balance is determined by the sum of the interactions over time.

How This Works: Example Scenario

Researchers are able to determine which couples will divorce with startling accuracy because of this simple idea. Over time, if the sum of your partner's Emotional Bank Account is negative they will be unhappy. If both partner's Emotional Bank Accounts are negative, they would both have to agree to make fixing it a priority or there is little hope for the relationship.

Let's examine how this works in a real-life example.

John and Renee (names changed for privacy) have been married for 3 years. They have a one year old child. Renee works a standard 9-5 job while John has his own business and works long hours.

John and Renee are in the kitchen, discussing plans for the weekend. Renee is cooking breakfast while John is catching up on work emails and feeding their baby in his highchair.

Renee says, “We need to get groceries, we're almost out of milk, and then I promised your mom I would swing by and look at her new curtains. I think she just wants to see JJ, but I'll go anyway.” (She's thinking that John will pick up on her bid to notice that she's doing something nice for his mom)

John says, “Mmmphf. Ok.” (He's being dismissive by turning away from her bid for connection.)

Renee glances over, feeling like he doesn't notice her at all. “Maybe she would keep JJ for a couple hours so we could go see that new movie I've been wanting to see.”
John says, “If she's going to keep him for a couple hours I'll stay later on the job site and get this project wrapped up.” (John misses another bid by Renee to get noticed.)

Renee is feeling neglected and taken for granted. John is feeling like he's doing his best to earn money for their family.

Turn a Negative into a Positive

In a healthy relationship – at this point Renee would explain her perspective to John and he would put down his phone and listen to what she is saying. As an attentive husband, he would understand that she is communicating her love for him by helping his mom. Then they would reach a compromise together that would answer both partner's needs.

In an unhealthy relationship – this interaction could go several different ways. Usually, after a long build up of this sort of withdrawal from one partner's emotional bank account it reaches a critical level and the partner reacts in a way that seems out of proportion to the event.

Then one partner is left with an empty or overdrawn Emotional Bank Account. Over time, this can result in resentment and feelings of being undervalued.

By learning to manage conflict in productive ways, they can approach situations like this with an open mind. This will strengthen their bond and increase their understanding of one another, deepening their trust in each other leading to closer emotional connection in the relationship.
It takes time and a lot of care and empathy to be able to navigate these everyday relationship challenges – but they are vital to a healthy relationship. Failure to answer your partner's bids for connection will wear away at the foundation of your marriage and leave your relationship vulnerable to collapse.

These seemingly small interactions and bids for your partner's attention and affection are good predictors of success in a relationship.