Bidding for Attention: Share it with me

Joan with tires
Joan asked for her portrait as two-tired. Is it a bid, or a turn-down to a bid? (click pic to enlarge)
I’m standing by my computer with an old hard drive in my hand. It’s the size of a small paperback book, and it’s warm because it’s been running. But it won’t boot. I pull the power connector, let the drive spin down, then plug the power back in and thump the drive on the table while it spins up. The data is in there, but the search head is stuck and can’t read the disk.

If I were writing about dementia this would be an easy analogy, but I’m writing about love.

The reason I need this drive to boot is that it may hold the only copy of the layout files I created ten years ago to publish my father-in-law’s 275-page memoir. The printing company can’t find their copy of the files. Two printings of the book are sold out, and the historical museum in his home town has just placed an order for more.

Joan is in the kitchen inventing tasty puréed food recipes for her 94-year-old father who has trouble swallowing. I’m increasingly frustrated, thumping the hard drive on the table, when I suddenly realize Joan is standing next to me holding a big spoon up to my mouth brimming with some sort of lurid green goo.

We feed babies and the incapacitated elderly. But we don’t feed George, especially when he’s at the very edge of being righteously pissed off over a technical problem.

My inclination is to brush the proffered spoon angrily away. But Joan says, “I want you to taste this. It’s really really good.” Her face is alight with joy at the success of her concoction and the fact that she can share it with me.

This is really not about sharing food or the thrill of discovery. It’s a bid for intimacy, something we do dozens of times a day, one of the first things we learned to do as babies, and something we never stop doing, even as we climb into our deathbeds.

Share this with me. Show me that you care. I don’t have to like what’s on the spoon, but if I turn my head away, if I reject her bid, I am in fact telling her that I don’t care. Rejecting one spoonful of puréed glop is probably not going to break our marriage. But if we are ever at the point where we are turning down each other’s bids more often than not, the relationship could be in trouble.

Turns out that how we make and respond to these so-called bids is a big predictor of the long-term health of a marriage or other close relationship. Psychologists John and Julie Gottman (The Gottman Institute) have been studying for several decades the glue that holds relationships together. In an article called “Masters of Love” (Atlantic, June, 2014), author EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH writes about Gottman’s research on bids:

“…Throughout the day [during the study], partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

“The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it…These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”

The article covers more detail on other aspects of Goldman’s research and findings, basically supporting what we all suspected anyway: kindness and generosity are the keys to a good relationship. It’s a piece that’s well worth googling and reading. If you find it valuable, you might, uh, share it with your spouse. If said spouse isn’t interested in your bid, well, just read the article again yourself.

Joan and I have been married almost 45 years. That would be a long, long list of bids. I don’t think either of us have ever hit the 87 percent mark. But on the other hand, we are doing better than 33 percent. We must be. Science says it’s so. And we are still married.