TheConfidante In the Media
It would be true to say the meaning of “turning on” your partner is fairly clear. How to, and when to is a whole other article for a whole other time. As it turns out, "turning toward" your partner is a considerably important priority for connection. If you make a conscious effort to consistently turn towards your partner, it's likely you get to enjoy both!
Confused? Great, read on to find out what I’m talking about.
In any relationship we seek emotional connection from our partners. These take the form of a few distinct “bids”, as outlined by Clinician and Scholar Dr John Gottman.
These bids are related to attention, conversation, approval, sympathy, play, etc. Things like, “Can you help me find my socks.” “Look at this singing puppy on YouTube!”, “Have you seen Pink’s baby belly?”, “Do these pants suit me?”, “What did you get up to today?”. All of these present various attempts at making a connection.
Where does this whole “turn toward your partner” thing come in? Well, say you’re at home watching TV and your partner enters the room. They ask you to look at something they’ve made or are wearing or have found. This can be a bid for multiple things at once — attention, interest, emotional support.
How you respond to this bid can be summarised by one of three ‘turns’.
1. Turn against your partner: When you respond to one of these attempts at connection with hostility. We have, at one point or another, all been there (unfortunately!). You’re busy doing something and someone walks in, interrupting you. You snap at them and tell them you’re busy, or concentrating, or even just tell them to nick off. “Shhhh, Allan Border is talking on the tellie!”
2. Turn away from your partner: Basically ignoring or dismissing them! You pretend you haven’t heard or give some other dismissive gesture. If you’re watching a screen, you keep your eyes glued and don’t look up. Maybe you give a little shrug to drive your apathy home. This is also a common tactic easily deployed during or after conflict.
3. Turn toward your partner: Here it is! Turning toward your partner is when you actively engage with your partner’s bid for attention. You look at them, respond to them, ask questions to show interest and empathy. “Yes, the dress is lovely, you’d look great in a sack!” “Wow, that must have frustrated the heck out of you at work, what did you do then?” “I'm confused why you’d think that way but tell me more.”
All interactions between couples have a mixture of these responses. Turning away, or even against, your partner every now and then isn’t going to destroy a relationship, however couples who consistently turn toward each other fare a lot better.
Gottman’s research by analysing married couples over the space of six years found those still happily together at the six year mark “turned toward” each other 87% of the time. That’s really high, but there’s still a healthy amount of room for the occasional “Uh huh. Very nice.” These couples were called the “Masters”.
By contrast, the couples that had fallen apart — labelled, very bluntly, “Disasters”! — only managed to turn towards each other about 33% of the time. For every 10 bids of attention, only three would be met with a connection. Ouch.
So how can we strive to “turn toward” our partners more often than not? How can we make sure we’re giving our partners all the engagement and attention we’re capable of?
1. LOOK FOR THE POSITIVES: “Masters” view their environment, and their partners, for things they could appreciate and be thankful for. They created an air of respect and appreciation for one another. When you respect and appreciate your partner it’s much easier to engage with their bids for attention, however small or trivial you might find them.
2. DISAGREE RESPECTFULLY: “Disaster” couples look at their lives and partners for things that go wrong. They get hung up on any failing, no matter how inconsequential. “You didn’t put the lid down!” “You didn’t wipe the bench!” “You didn’t pack up your makeup!”. Couples that find themselves tearing at each other over the slightest faux pas are on an express elevator to separation. If you need to express it, do it respectfully and use your feelings words to convey the impact of their behaviour.
3. UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARGUE: Many arguments stem from a sense of disconnection from your partner. It’s not about dishes or housework or former relationships, it’s about whether the other person has your back. We argue because we fear abandonment, we fear the loss of support. Fear turns to anger (thanks, Yoda) and we lash out at the person who we’re terrified of living without. When you understand how insidious this fear of disconnection truly is, it’s easier to put the effort into those “bids” for connection.
4. ENJOY INDIVIDUALITY: You and your partner are not clones! For all your similarities, you have different tastes and interests. Let your partner know how much something means to you. They don’t need to be as interested to engage with you on it, they just need to know that it’s meaningful to you. If you both understand each other’s preferences, it can just be a matter of feeding from each other’s enthusiasm.
5. BE KIND: The biggest difference between a successful marriage and a failed one is the presence, or absence, of kindness. If your partner is down in the dumps and needs a hug, and you’re tired and laid out on the couch, it can be the greatest gesture in the world to go over and hold them. It’s these small gestures, these small expressions of kindness and compassion, that exemplify turning towards your partner when they need it. And with these small gestures, you’ll build a stronger relationship and inevitably turn ON that switch.
Joanne Wilson is a Sunshine Coast professional Counsellor and Psychotherapist with a keen interest in relationships and pre-marriage therapy. She is often found contributing through guest speaking invitations and has also produced her own books, Pearls of Wisdom from the Thriving Thirties, The Relationship Rejuvenator E-Book and presented a series of relationship seminars.
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