Sometimes we overcomplicate what’s truly important in relationships
“You should break up with him. That’s what I did with Matty,” my 10-year-old niece said nonchalantly.
“Really? Why? You love Matty!” I responded, surprised.
“He was ignoring me. I’m seeing Isaac now. He pays attention to me,” she said.
While the friend whom my niece had not so tactfully interrupted laughed and ruffled her hair, I realized what a genius my niece really was. Let’s rewind half an hour and I’ll explain why.
My friend had been telling me about her relationship with her partner of fifteen years. They had met in college and their first few years together had been great. He was handsome, spontaneous, ambitious, and smart. All the things she thought she wanted in a partner. A few years later, his career had taken off and she felt the relationship drift.
At first, it was the obvious things. Missed dates, postponed vacations, late nights. Always with a lot of apologies. Then, it was the small things. He became less and less present even when they were together. He was always preoccupied.
“When we were on vacation, and I finally saw a wild Orang Utan for the first time and pointed it out to him. He just kind of grunted. I mean everyone knows how obsessed I’ve been with them! But he’s under a lot of stress at work. That’s normal, right?” she looked at me.
I shrugged. I could tell she was making excuses for him. Every description of their relationship was filled with some kind of lack — whether it was attention, time, or patience and quickly followed by why it was ok. Like the time I asked if she had told him that she was struggling with the wedding planning.
“I would never dream of texting him if I felt anxious during the day. It would just seem so unimportant. I mean, it’s normal to get stressed, right? He would probably ask me what I expect him to do about it.”
I wanted to tell her that yes, weddings can be stressful, but she was stressed because it sounded like she was doing it all on her own. We’re talking about a woman who managed multi-million-dollar construction projects after all. The wedding should be a cakewalk for her. But she didn’t want to hear any of the reasons why it wouldn’t work because society had told her that he is such a catch and her friends had convinced her that these were small things that could be “fixed.”
So, she read a ton of relationship books and was convinced that if she tried hard enough, it would be enough to carry the relationship for them both. You might be reading this and thinking, “Well, it doesn’t seem so bad. He’s just having a busy period at work and lots of men don’t love wedding planning.”
You might also be thinking that there was simply no definitive way to know based on these small clues if the relationship would work. It turns out, there is. In fact, one scientist is famous for being able to predict divorces with 94% accuracy. Read on to know more about his unique decades-long research and conclusions.
So, who was right? The bunch of 30-something women who had been dating for decades or my 10-year-old niece?
Ok. The headline kind of gave it away. It was my niece.
Here’s the kicker — my niece hadn’t just stumbled across a red flag; she had nailed THE red flag.
The strongest predictor
Dr. John Gottman is the scientist mentioned above and his research is so respected because of the extraordinary lengths he took to study these couples. He actually put cameras in the homes of the couples so he could watch their interactions (with their consent, of course!). Another reason is that he tracked them over a long period of time. All-in-all, he spent over 40 years trying to answer this question: “What separates the relationship masters from the relationship disasters?”
Contrary to widely believed dogma, it is not the presence of conflict.
In his book “The Relationship Cure”, Gottman writes, “But after many months of watching these tapes with my students, it dawned on me. Maybe it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversations that matters. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether couples agree or disagree. Maybe the important thing is how these people pay attention to each other, no matter what they’re talking about or doing.”
Dr. Gottman called these “bids” for attention. A bid can be anything from a comment, a question, a physical outreach, or even a teasing smile. Responding positively means that the partner turns towards the other partner and responds in an actively engaged manner. A grunt, a distracted nod, or silence was referred to as turning away, while contempt or annoyance (e.g., saying, “Could you stop interrupting me while I’m trying to focus?!”) would be turning against.
He said that one of the strongest predictors of healthy relationships is couples who regularly make and turn toward bids. So, in my niece's words, partners who regularly seek and pay attention to each other.
Another important fact about bids
My coaching client recently told me that she walked away from a marriage of 30 years because she was tired of being ignored. That was it. There were no screaming fights, no sordid affairs, or even annoying habits. She was simply tired of playing second fiddle to her husband’s career and her children’s needs.
I asked her when she felt that way and she said, “28 years ago.” Wow.
Her husband was caught completely off guard. He had no idea that she was even unhappy. She wasn’t but she wasn’t thriving either. She had no identity beyond being a wife and mother.
He suggested that they get away and go to couples therapy. She said no. It was too little too late. What she needed was for him to have really listened to her at least once in the last 10,220 days or to remember to look at her art or stop to read the article she found funny — to interact with her as more than the mother of his children.
“Sure, he was good at remembering anniversaries and birthdays. He was never unkind. But I stopped feeling adored or even seen. We were business partners.”
Remember that there are 525,600 minutes in a day and a fancy dinner or expensive gift can only take up less than 1% of them. The rest of the 99% is far more important.
So, here is the other important twist about not making and positively responding to bids. Its consequences can take you by complete surprise and it can happen anytime. Even after over 30 years. No big fight, no big issues, just one person walking out the door.
My niece will no doubt forget this very simple way of gauging how much to invest in a relationship. As she becomes a teenager, she will be exposed to very bad advice from society, Hollywood, and her friends. They will indoctrinate her in all the “rules” of dating, what makes a desirable man (cash, college, career), etc.
Yet, right now, she sees things clearer than most adults do. She chooses based simply on how someone makes her feel most of the time. She doesn’t cloud her judgment with expectations, fears, and insecurities.
She isn’t worried that this “has to work” because there is so much at stake or that she’s already invested years in this relationship. She’s not fearful that she’ll never find someone else. She’s not afraid of what other people think.
And when those things are not there, the choice is simple.
Isn’t it funny how we knew all along?
Of course, life isn’t always as simple as that. Adult relationships are complex. Years of love, investment, and effort shouldn’t be thrown out on a whim — but indifference should not be ignored either. As Dr. Gottman has shown, it almost inevitably leads to the death of a relationship. If you are unsure where your relationship sits, remember this:
You deserve someone who will respond to your emotional needs even when it’s inconvenient. Especially, when it’s inconvenient.
You deserve someone who makes you feel like a priority. Like your feelings, thoughts, and desires matter. A lot.
You deserve someone who is excited about your dreams and quirky likes.
You deserve someone who responds to your bids for affection with warmth and enthusiasm.
You deserve someone who will look up and share the wonder of life when you point out something beautiful, funny, or insightful.
You deserve someone who sees and adores you.
My niece would never accept anything less and neither should you. It may be enough today, but it likely won’t be in the future.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” — Elie Wiesel
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