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Blog Short #185: 4 Strategies to Give Your Relationship a Makeover

Photo by courtneyk, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Relationships, whether just starting out or established for years, need nurturing and attention to survive and thrive. No mystery there. The question is, “What kind of nurturing and attention, and where do you get that information?”

Normally, it’s left to your parents and family to pass down to you. And sometimes it is, but not always because no one taught them either. Fortunately, there is some promising research on this subject you can use to help.

Today, I’m going to discuss four practices discovered by Drs. John and Julie Gottman in the course of their extensive research on marriage that you can use right away.

These practices help, regardless of the state of your relationship, and they work for any close relationship, not just marriages.

Strategy #1: Acknowledge “Bids for Connection”

I put this phrase in parentheses because the Gottmans have coined it in their book, The Love Prescription.

Bids for connection are any attempt, small or large, to get your partner to acknowledge and interact with you.

It can be obvious, like, “Can I quickly read you this? You’ve got to hear it!” Or it can be eye contact, a smile, a sigh, or a quick touch. It’s a bid to connect that requires a response. The Gottmans point to three possible responses:

  1. Turning toward, which means acknowledging the bid and reacting positively.
  2. Turning away, which means ignoring or not responding at all.
  3. Turning against, which means responding with irritation or anger to negate the bid and shut it down.

Using our example, you might say, “Sure! Let me hear it!” Or you might not look up but keep doing whatever you’re doing as though you didn’t hear it. Or you could say with irritation, “I’m busy right now! Leave me alone!”

Only the first response will make a connection.

The value of turning toward bids for connection is that they build a store of positive feelings toward each other over time that serves as a backdrop when problems or conflicts arise. The Gottmans call it an “emotional bank account” that keep you from holding grudges or hanging onto negative feelings when you’re upset with each other.

At the other end of the spectrum, if bids for connection are largely ignored or are met with irritation, conflicts are like a match that lights the fire doused with lighter fluid.

The Gottmans’ research found that couples who divorced turned toward their partner’s bids for connections 33 percent of the time as opposed to 86 percent for couples who stayed together.

That’s a pretty significant difference! They also have found that turning toward bids for connection is the single most effective action you can take to enhance your relationship.

Strategy #2: Be Curious

If you’ve been in a relationship for years, you probably think you know most everything about your partner.

Undoubtedly, you know a lot, but people change over time. You know this about yourself; as you get older and have more experiences, your values, aspirations, desires, and even dreams shift.

We’re always a work in progress, and for a relationship to flourish, you need to communicate and share those shifts as they occur.

Being curious and asking the right questions helps you stay abreast of those changes, but they also do something else that’s important:

They allow you to learn more about your partner’s internal world and increase your understanding of each other.

The Gottmans propose that you ask each other “big” open-ended questions like these:

  • How do you think you’ve changed in the last five years?
  • What events in your childhood had the most significant impact on you?
  • If you could start over, what career would you choose, or what would you study in college?
  • What’s your biggest hope for our future?

These questions are exploratory and make you look from the inside out. By sharing this kind of information, imagining, or recollecting, you create intimacy and learn more about each other’s internal workings. You appreciate each other and have more compassion and understanding.

Strategy #3: Show Appreciation

The longer you’re with someone, the easier it is to focus on what bothers you about them. That’s just the way we’re built. We have a negativity bias because our brains are set to scan for problems. It’s part of survival and keeps us from getting into deep trouble.

But it’s a problem in relationships because you can become overly critical. Your perceptions of your partner get skewed by what you don’t like, and you miss out on what you do like.

You have to rewire your brain to scan for the positive. The good news is that this is actually possible on a neurological basis. Brain scans show different parts of the brain operating when processing negative versus positive emotions.

When you focus on the positive, you reinforce neural pathways that keep you moving in that direction. Likewise, if you focus on the negative, you’ll see more of that.

So, when you notice what your partner is doing right more than wrong, you increase your perceptions of what you appreciate about them.

Verbalizing your appreciation by saying thank you for things they do, even small acts, reinforces those perceptions. Besides, don’t you want to do more to please someone when they’ve thanked you for your small acts of kindness? Yes! The same goes for your partner.

Notice as many little things as you can and say something about them. Your partner will want to please you more.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of fault-finding, try abstaining from criticism altogether and verbalizing appreciation as much as you can.

When there’s a problem, approach it by asking for what you need rather than criticizing. For example, if your partner isn’t helping with the kids around dinner time when you’re trying to get the food on the table, don’t berate him, but instead, tell him what you need him to do to help and make sure to thank him when he does it. Model the behavior you want.

Strategy #4: Remember What You Admire

Now that you’re thinking about what you appreciate about your partner, go a step further and think about what you admire about them.

  • What characteristics initially attracted you?
  • What unique things did you admire and love?
  • What qualities—physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, or in any way—do you admire?

I love this exercise because it lifts your focus up instead of down. It’s easy to notice flaws, but when you focus on assets, you begin to see the flaws with more compassion while appreciating what you admire.

If you’ve become estranged from your partner, this exercise may be challenging because you’ve become disillusioned. If that’s the case, try it out anyway and let it stoke your memory of what you once admired. If you’re working on turning toward bids for connection, you’ll eventually be able to remember more of what you appreciate and admire.

Here are two statistics that blew me away when I read the research:

  1. During a conflict, it takes five positive interactions versus one negative interaction “to keep love alive over time.” Negativity has a lot more power to damage a relationship than positivity does to heal that damage. You need your emotional bank account full of positive interactions to weather the storms.
  2. For the rest of the time, when not dealing with conflicts, you need a positive-to-negative ratio of twenty to one. So, you need twenty positive interactions for every negative interaction to keep your relationship viable and flourishing.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But, if you’re generally kind, compassionate, and empathetic with each other while avoiding being critical, contemptuous, or sarcastic, then it’s not so hard to do. A good goal is to be each other’s best friend.

What if My Partner Doesn’t Want to Participate?

These practices work best if both partners embrace and practice them. However, one partner can start by making a few shifts.

If you practice responding positively to bids for connection while also showing appreciation and letting up on criticism, your partner may begin responding to you differently. You can build on that until the relationship turns around and you have your partner’s cooperation.

The caveat is that if you’re in a toxic, abusive relationship, these strategies aren’t meant to keep you there. They aren’t a replacement for setting necessary boundaries. Abuse is never to be tolerated.

But if you find your relationship has become stale and you’re cohabiting without feeling connected, or if you’re just starting out and want to ensure your relationship develops well, then these strategies are very potent and useful.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


Additional Reading:
How to Handle Negative Feelings About Your Partner
What’s the Key to a Long-Lasting Relationship

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