One of the easiest ways to improve your relationship and make it last is to recognize and commit to responding to your partner's requests for attention. There are millions of little ways couples make requests for connection throughout the day. A bid for attention might be simply the brush of a hand on your loved one's shoulder, or eye contact and a smile when passing in the hall. Responding to this request could be as easy as looking up and smiling, reciprocating the eye contact. Couples who make the effort to respond to these subtle requests for attention, and the overt ones as well, are more likely to enjoy ongoing intimacy and connection. A behavioral study by John Gottman demonstrated that couples who started off the marriage responding to each others' bids for attention regularly were more likely to continue to be married after six years. Couples who stayed married those first 6 years "turned towards" each other by responding to a bid for attention at least 86% of the time, and couples who were divorced by the six year mark turned towards each other an average of 33% of the time. 1
So, how do you recognize and respond to a bid for attention? Let's start with something easy. Your partner sends a text asking about dinner plans, "What shall we do for dinner tonight? 😘" Take a few seconds to respond, even if you are busy, even if you don't want to think about dinner yet. At the very least, "Not sure about dinner. Busy right now. Let's talk later. 😘" The partner who sent this text may in fact be making dinner plans, but more importantly they are asking for connection, and a response takes just a moment.
Let's look at an example that may be a little more challenging. One partner is looking forward to coming home from a crazy day of meetings at work to sit in front of the TV and not talk to anyone. The other partner has been working at home on a computer all day and is looking forward to cooking a meal together and talking about their day, craving some physical contact and a quiet conversation. When he walks in the door, and goes straight to the couch to grab the remote, she feels disappointed. She comes into the room and asks about his day and what he wants to do for dinner. He doesn't look up from the TV as he grumbles a response about getting a pizza, and again she feels disappointed, lonely even. She starts to feel annoyed and says tersely, "You know, I've had a long day and I'd like it if you didn't ignore me for a change. All you do is sit in front of the TV. I don't know why I even try to talk to you!" His response is dismissive, "Stop freaking out! Calm down. I just want to be left alone right now."
This is a cycle of communication they get pulled in to frequently. How could they avoid it?
Let's try it again. He walks in and grabs the remote. She feels disappointed. She comes in and asks about his day. Knowing that his wife is asking for attention, he looks into her eyes, pats the couch next to him and invites her to sit down. He says, "I've had a long day, and so many difficult meetings. I just want to order a pizza and veg out in front of the TV." She sits beside him and says, "My day was long too, and I was looking forward to being together." He responds by reaching for her hand and asking her what she'd like to watch. She snuggles up and they put on a show they both like. In this version of reality, they both understand the importance of acknowledging each other and staying connected. They each explain what their needs are in the moment, and together, they find a way to take care of each other, while at the same time having their own needs met. This kind of interaction happens when both partners are committed to maintaining a healthy, intimate connection, and they have both practiced being mindful of their knee jerk reactions to disappointment and annoyance. With practice, we can override our automatic responses in the moment and turn toward each other with patience and care.