Relationships fall into many categories -- romantic partners, friends, coworkers, family, and children. There's no silver bullet to cure all types of relationships, but there are general strategies to help you greatly improve them.
Contrary to popular belief, people don't form close relationships simply by "opening up" to each other.
A research experiment orchestrated by the author and his colleagues called "the Love Lab" monitored 60 couples for 12 hours a day. There were few instances of "opening up" -- most conversations were casual and mundane. The researchers concluded it's not what you talk about that maintains close relationships, it's how you talk to each other that matters.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse (behaviors that can destroy a relationship) are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
The "bids" in a relationship are the most fundamental units. A "bid" is an attempt to establish an emotional connection through verbal or nonverbal communication. Examples include a question ("did you see that movie?"), an exclamation ("look at that sunset!"), a gesture (offering a seat), or even a facial expression (a smile).
A bid can be responded to in three ways: turning toward, turning away, or turning against. It's how you respond to these bids that determine the quality of your relationships.
If someone calls you and asks you if you want to read an article, and you say "Yes, please send me it!". That's turning towards the bid and positively establishing the connection. If you ignore the bid and respond with "Do you know what time it is?" That's turning away from the bid. Finally, if you say "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?" You are turning against the bid.
Turning towards a bid shows that you value the other person. Turning away or against the bid potentially signals that you don't appreciate the other person.
Bids can sometimes seem like inconsequential small talk, but they often have deeper meanings.
Imagine a romantic couple sitting on a couch. The woman asks "Isn't it a bit chilly?" This could be a bid from her to ask for a cuddle. She did not straightforwardly ask for a cuddle because the rejection will be harder to handle. It is easier to disagree on temperature or to be handed a blanket, than to receive rejection for physical intimacy. Sometimes bids are purposefully vague for a good reason.
Bids can be hard to recognize or interpret. When a child has a tantrum, it can be a bid for comfort. When your partner criticizes you for not calling enough, it's a bid for more communication. It can be difficult to respond positively when bids involve negative feelings like sadness, anger, or fear, but if we attempt to understand and acknowledge what the other person's unmet needs are, relationships will improve. Consider hugging and comforting the child who has a tantrum instead of chastising him.
To better understand other people's bids, learn about where they're coming from.
A couple, Sarah and Rick, sought therapy from the author. Sarah would get angry at Rick for watching TV instead of talking to her, and a fight would ensue. Rick was raised by his grandmother who resented him and constantly berated him. Consequently, Rick developed low self-esteem. Rick's negative response to Sarah's criticism is a residual effect of his upbringing -- he is thinking that Sarah is saying "You can't do anything right," and attacking his self-worth just like his grandma did. Sarah is one of seven siblings who was taught to keep her needs to herself. She continued to do so as an adult, and after a while her frustrations will bubble up and end with complaints. In reality, Sarah just wanted a closer connection to Rick with her grievance about watching TV.
If we consider our own and other people's emotional heritage we'll be able to understand and respond to bids more helpfully.
When you're making a bid, consider your underlying needs, and express them with soft language.
One night, the author was waiting for his wife to join dinner as she was still working. Eventually, the author became frustrated and yelled, "Stop working! It's family time!" The wife felt attacked and yelled back, "I can't! I need to finish this!" If the author rephrased his bid with softer language (e.g., "Honey, we miss you! Come up and have dinner with us when you can please."), his wife would have responded much differently.
To build connections, turn towards the bids and propose your own bids. For example, if someone asks you if you have plans for lunch, you can understand the underlying meaning of the bid and ask them if they'd like to join you for lunch. Furthermore, you can ask them if they know any good restaurants around the area. This will keep the connection going and the relationship will naturally develop.
You don't always have to accept bids to respond positively. If someone suggests lunch and you are busy, you can still decline it and propose another bid, like having lunch tomorrow instead.
Your responses to one or two bids will not determine the quality of the relationship. Your pattern of responding to bids will. If you have a pattern of turning towards bids, then the relationship will bloom. If the pattern is negative, then the relationship will falter. For instance, if you occasionally invite someone to dinner, and they respond positively most of the time, then you'll feel that they enjoy your company. However, if they reject your invitation frequently and do not propose another bid, then you'll feel that they don't enjoy being with you, and the relationship will deteriorate.
A study found that in marriages ending in divorce, husbands reacted negatively to their wives' bids 82% of the time. In stable marriages, husbands reacted negatively to their wives' bids only 19% of the time.
If there's a lot of conflict in your relationship, reflect on what isn't being discussed.
Having a shared vision and purpose in a relationship is important to keep the foundation of the relationship strong.
Engaging in shared rituals can make the relationship stronger.