Try clapping your hands, but with only one hand. Exactly. It takes two.
Happy couples detect and respond to their partner’s everyday, ordinary efforts for attention, humor, affection, emotional support, solidarity, sex and so on, twice as much as unhappy couples. (Studies show that unhappy couples underdetect bids because of distorted perceptions and more rapid physiological responses, which means their brains quickly jump into charged fights and grudges.)
In the field of couples counseling, missing a partner’s attempt for your attention is called a “failed bid.” I call it a one-handed clap. And, the goal is not to see to it that such failed bids damn-well-better-not happen. They do. They just do.
In fact, even as happy couples, we seem to only catch and respond to our partner’s bids 60% of the time. Sixty percent! That leaves us striking out 40% of the time, daily.
In fact, as happy couples, we seem to only catch and respond to our partner’s bids 60% of the time. That leaves us striking out 40% of the time, daily.
For that reason, the goal is to learn how to repair failed bids when they happen because, again, they are going to happen.
Here’s the quick-grab-it, 1-2-3 short list of how to repair a failed bid:
(1) Recognize that you dropped the ball. And, for the one receiving an apology: This is not an occasion to scold. Unhappy couples do that. So, try not to personalize having your bid unnoticed. Remember it happens. It just does.
(2) Have a laid-back dialogue about it. Just acknowledge that it happened, and try to see what is being desired (i.e., reassurance, input, interest, emotional support, physical attention, affection, what?)
(3) Notice above in #2 it says “laid-back” and, in #1 above, it says “try not to personalize”? This is key. So, the third how-to step is to lessen reactivity and defensiveness.
Yeah, I know: cuddle schmuddle. Plus, not being reactive or defensive so that you can have laid-back conversation is way easier said than done. Our brains’ neurobiology likes to be primed for fight or flight, which means you might like the next how-to list as well:
Ways to have a dialogue with less reactivity and defensiveness:
(1) Learn how you each accidentally turn away* I can write about the gazillion ways in a later blog or you might read some of John Gottman’s work or Patricia Love’s books.
(2) Learn what your unexpressed needs are and articulate them. Your partner is not a mind-reader.
(3) Examine your projection & blame.
The majority of the time, when we blame or say the other person does such and such, it is the other way around; it is ourselves who do such and such. You can examine this by simply asking yourself: “How do I do that?” If you think you don’t, try harder to see how you actually do. When both partners get this skill down, the breathing room in the relationship is fantastically spacious.
(4) Come up with ways to signal each other and also relieve reactivity.
One way is to “throw the white flag” and say “Oops, we just started to do it again. Didn’t we. Can we try this again?” Another way is to make a light shared joke that you both could find funny, to stop the spiral down into negative feelings: “Oh my gosh, did my mother just possess my body? Let me go see where my nice person went.”
(5) When your partner says sorry, say you’re sorry too.
There is always some role we each play. Even something like: “That’s okay, I know you’re feeling stressed these days and I’d be the same way too. I’m just wanting a little extra TLC myself this evening.” A word of advance notice: Sometimes, if the failed bid is gigantic like at a nuclear level where a counselor might be an option, please know that the injured partner may not be ready to make-up very quickly; they may have wounds to lick.
Reference: Robinson & Price, 1980; Gottman, 1999