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A strong relationship needs both partners to respond to each other’s ‘bids for connection.’ Here’s what that means

By Taylor Nicioli, CNN

(CNN) — “There’s a woodpecker over there!”

Alyssa Caribardi watched as her friend whipped her head around to look out the window and seek out the bird. And with that simple gesture, Caribardi knew their friendship would last.

In what may seem like a small, everyday exchange, her friend’s reaction was an important indicator for their relationship: She had responded to Caribardi’s “bid for connection,” a term coined by relationship experts at the Gottman Institute in Seattle.

Their interaction might not look important to outsiders, but Caribardi had given someone close to her an opportunity to connect, and her friend had reciprocated.

“Bids for connection are when one partner reaches out to the other person for either interest, or a conversation or expressing a need,” said Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, a clinical psychologist who has researched couples and long-lasting marriages alongside her husband, Dr. John Gottman, for more than 40 years. “Depending on how the partner responds, the relationship either succeeds or doesn’t do so well.”

The bids can be verbal or physical, such as pointing out a bird in a tree, repeating something heard on TV, asking for advice or even simply directing a smile at the other person. Whether the bid is big or small doesn’t matter — what is important is the other person’s response, Schwartz Gottman said.

And it’s not just important for couples to know about these opportunities to connect — it also affects parent-child relationships, friendships, even business ties, she noted.

How to recognize a ‘bid for connection’

The basis of “bids for connection” stems from the Gottmans’ “Love Lab” research, which started in 1986 and tracked couples for six years. At the end of that time, the couples still together were found to have responded to each other’s bids 86% of the time, while those who split up only responded 33% of the time.

Caribardi knows that feeling. The Leander, Texas, native said she thought the woodpecker was neat, partially because she had never seen one before. But the fun part was her friend’s reciprocated interest that spiraled into a deep-dive Google session on the bird.

“We can talk about literally anything and everything — a brick wall could talk to us. And the woodpecker showed me that,” Caribardi said. “But even if she just said, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that is really cool,’ that’s literally the only thing that you need. Just someone to acknowledge what you’re saying.”

Caribardi posted her experience with the woodpecker on TikTok in October, referring to it as “the bird test,” alongside others who took to the app to recount their experience with giving out small bids — such as pointing out cool birds — to their friends and partners.

Schwartz Gottman said this test is a good example of the importance of “turning toward” a partner, one of the three responses someone can have to a bid. If a partner responds to a bid, even with a simple acknowledgement that the other person was heard, it is the best and most beneficial response to have. If the partner were to ignore the other person and have no verbal response to the bid being made, she calls that “turning away.”

But the worst response is what Schwartz Gottman calls “turning against,” which happens when there is hostility toward the bid. Partners may respond with a comment such as “Stop interrupting what I’m doing,” or another variation that tells the other person they don’t care about the bid.

“Most of us, at the end of the day, want to be seen and understood and feel important. And so, when there are too many bids that are missed or rejected, it leaves you feeling the opposite: unseen, unimportant, misunderstood,” said Dr. Lauren Fogel Mersy, a licensed psychologist and sex therapist based in Minnesota. “If that happens more often than not, it starts to erode connection and safety and trust in a relationship.”

What to do when your partner wants to connect

While bids look to be crucial in a relationship, no one is perfect and should not be expected to answer a bid all the time, Fogel Mersy said. “You just want a ratio of more positive to negative responses to bids.”

If someone notices a partner has missed or continuously misses a bid, she recommends communicating the intent for attention by saying, “Hey, that was my way of trying to connect with you,” or “I’m looking to converse with you, or get some attention from you, is now a good time?”

Fogel Mersy also recommends people become more aware of their own responses when partners make a bid and even ask their partners directly if they feel they are getting responses to their calls for attention. The more direct a person is with a bid and its intent, the more likely the bid is to be reciprocated, she added.

It’s OK if a person notices that a partner is sending out a bid to connect but isn’t feeling up to connecting at the moment, maybe because they are too tired or have a lot on their mind. Schwartz Gottman recommends communicating those feelings directly and honestly to the partner, instead of lashing out with a “turning against” response.

“Most of the time, if the response is positive, it’s not really going to matter how small or big (the bid) is, but with negative ‘turning away,’ or ‘turning against,’ those can cause some real emotional damage in the relationship,” Schwartz Gottman said. The takeaway is “that turning toward one another is really the foundation of a good strong friendship — and also passion and romance.”

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