Every couple has an emotional bank account that uses trust as currency rather than money. The balance in that account determines how couples react when things go wrong in the relationship. It works just like a checking account. If you have plenty of money in the bank and learn that your car needs a new transmission, it’s an inconvenience. But if you only have five dollars in the bank even a minor car repair can be a crisis. Conflict for a couple with a low balance in their emotional bank account almost always feels like a crisis.
You have opportunities to deposit (or withdraw) trust in your relationship’s emotional bank account every day. In order to do that you have to be able to recognize these opportunities and act on them. But they can be tricky to spot. This article will begin to teach you how.
Bids: The Secret Language of Trust
To build the trust balance in your emotional bank account you have to learn that there is a secret language being spoken in the background of every relationship. In subtle and mundane ways, the question “can I count on you?” is asked over, and over between partners. We rarely come right out and ask the question overtly. Most of the time we ask it like this:
- Did you hear that car go by?
- Guess what happened on Facebook today!
- What do you want to do this weekend?
These mundane questions are actually signals that are called “bids.” Bids are like sonar waves sent forth to probe the relationship in order to find out whether our partner is available, responsive, and engaged with us. How you respond to your partner’s bids on a regular basis forms their answer to the question “can I count on you?” So as you can see, how you respond is quite important if you want to create trust in your relationship.
There are three types of responses to bids. One type of response deposits trust in the emotional bank account and two types withdraw trust. Let’s examine all three.
Turn Toward Bids To Create Trust
The first response is to turn toward a bid. Turning toward your partner’s bids is really as simple as showing up. When they ask “did you hear that car go by?” you simply say “yes,” or you can answer more enthusiastically like “I sure did and it was really loud!” When you turn toward your partner’s bid it demonstrates to them that you are available, responsive, and engaged. Turning toward bids results in a deposit to the emotional bank account. This is the secret to creating trust in relationships.
Turning Away From Bids
Let’s say you’re watching the news or playing a game on your phone when your spouse makes a bid like “guess what happened on Facebook today!” Perhaps you are so engaged elsewhere that you don’t hear them. Or, maybe you think to yourself that if you don’t look up then you won’t have to disengage from what you are doing to talk about something you don’t really care about. This is turning away from a bid. Over time, turning away from bids can add up.
When you turn away from your partner’s bids for connection they experience distress. In fact, brain imaging technology has allowed us to see that the same part of the brain which lights up when someone experiences physical pain from injury, also lights up when a bid fails. As Dr. Susan Johnson points out, we now know that the phrase “you hurt my feelings” is right on target.
When you turn away from your partner’s bid for connection there is a withdrawal from the emotional bank account and trust is eroded.
Turning Against Bids
If you want to make a withdrawal that hits the emotional bank account with an overdraft fee, just turn against your partner’s bid. When your partner says “Guess what happened on Facebook today!” say, “You know, if you spent less time on Facebook this house would be cleaner and our kids would be better behaved.” Ouch. A bid for connection that is met with criticism and/or contempt is devastating to the emotional bank account. In case you are wondering, you should try not to do this. It takes twenty turning toward to make up for one turning against.
Bids, Turning, and Conflict
Research shows that couples who know how to create trust in relationship, i.e., couples with filled emotional bank accounts, experience more positive emotions during conflict, especially shared humor. This is crucial, because John Gottman’s research has demonstrated that what best predicts divorce or stability in marriage is the amount of positive emotions in a couple’s conflict – particularly humor, understanding, and affection.
You cannot manufacture positive emotions in your conflicts with your spouse by working on conflict itself. Think about the last time you were angry with your spouse. If someone told you to laugh at that moment do you think you could have pulled it off? Of course not. To bring positive emotion into your conflicts you have to build and manage the balance in your relationship’s emotional bank account. In order to do this you must recognize and turn toward each other’s bids on a regular basis.
Next Actions For Creating Trust
- Ask your partner to tell you how they usually make bids.
- Ask your spouse to share with you past instances they have made bids for connection that you turned away from.
- Validate the emotions they experienced after those turning away moments.
- Begin to watch for bids, both verbal and non-verbal from your spouse and turn toward them.
- Establish boundaries for yourself with regard to smart-phones, tablets, laptops, social media, video games, and television. You will not notice bids if you are constantly preoccupied elsewhere. It may not be your intent to be unavailable to your spouse when using these, but that is the impact. Take responsibility for that.
Couples that begin turning toward each other’s bids consistently often experience rapid improvement in their relationships. Our couples counselors at Living Well see this every day.
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