Attention Bids and How They Save Relationships

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August 12, 2019

Attention Bids and How They Save Relationships

If you had to put a number on it, how much do you feel like your partner listens or pays attention to you? How much do you listen and pay attention to your partner? Feeling listened to, heard, and understood are vital parts of communication and relationship satisfaction. If you feel like your partner doesn’t care about what you have to say, you probably won’t tell them as much. Most of the time, there isn’t one big incident or fight that makes you feel like your partner isn’t listening to you, it’s an accumulation of tiny interactions that happened over the course of your relationship. Little requests, or bids for attention, are opportunities to show care and connection. If these bids are not responded to, a person may feel rejected or unloved.

Examples of Attention Bids

What are bids? They can be obvious such as, “Let’s do something together this weekend,” or asking for help with the dishes. Often times, they can be quite subtle. Some examples of bids for attention include:

  • Direct questions (“How do I look?” “How was your day at work?”)
  • Simple requests (“Can you get me a glass of water while you’re up?)
  • Sighing out of nowhere (Can sometimes mean “Please ask me what’s on my mind.”)
  • Describing the setting (Looking out the window and saying, “It’s so rainy out there.”)
  • Physical touch, ranging anywhere from a quick touch of the arm to a hug to sexual intimacy
  • Sharing jokes or funny pictures
  • Openings to talk about emotions or experiences (“Work was really hard today.”)

In each of these examples, the person giving the bid is asking for attention in some way. A partner has a few options in how they respond. Let us look at these options using the bid “How was your day?”

  1. Respond indifferently → Partner walks away
  2. Respond negatively → Partner makes a noncommittal noise and does not ask the other how their day was or gets annoyed by the question
  3. Respond minimally → Partner replies “Fine”, moves on, and does not ask the other how their day was
  4. Respond enthusiastically → Partner replies with details or stories from the day and asks the other how their day was

What might this look like with a nonverbal bid for attention? Let’s examine the types of responses to the bid of a person trying to unexpectedly hug their partner.

  1. Respond indifferently → Partner does not hug back and moves away
  2. Respond negatively → Partner is annoyed and does not return the hug
  3. Respond minimally → Partner slightly returns the hug, squeezes gently, or waits for the hug to end
  4. Respond enthusiastically → Partner returns the hug with the same degree of squeezing and duration, or otherwise holds on to the other

What kind of response do you think you would have to each of these if it was your partner? The first two styles would likely make you feel a bit rejected. Responses to the third style tend to depend on the relationship and mood between the two in conversation and can feel like either an adequate response or another kind of rejection. The fourth response gives the most positive feelings and opens a door for further conversation and connection. How often a person feels rejected or appreciated based on responses can define relationship satisfaction.

What the Research Says about Attention Bids

Research by John and Julie Gottman found that the number of times a couple responded to each other’s bids for attention--turning towards--or rejected or ignored them--turning away--could predict if a couple stayed together or separated. The Gottmans found that couples that stayed together six years after getting married turned towards each other over 85 percent of the time while couples that separated turned towards each other roughly a third of the time. It’s important to note that successful couples did not respond positively 100% of the time. There may be times when your partner’s bid for attention when you are busy, in a bad mood, tired, or otherwise don’t have the energy to respond enthusiastically. What the Gottmans found was that each incident of turning towards put a deposit of good faith in what they call an “emotional bank account.” This bank account is built of trust and the recognition that if a partner didn’t respond enthusiastically this time, maybe something was going on for them in that moment, but they’ll be there next time. This allowance and positive attitude about the relationship is instrumental in giving couples flexibility and trust that their love will be attended to and given back.

Think about your own relationship. How often do you respond to little things your partner says or does that may be bids for attention? How often does your partner responds to your bids? Try to pay attention to how you and your partner bid for attention and respond for a few days, or notice how you respond to your partner and push yourself to respond more enthusiastically. You may notice feeling differently about your relationship once more enthusiastic responses are present.

If you want to work on building up your emotional bank account with your partner, or you feel like there’s something holding you back from responding enthusiastically, Gottman Method Couples Therapy may be helpful for you. Contact us on our website at or call us at 219-595-0043 if you would like more information. Sierra Stein is a couple and family therapist intern at Clarity Clinic and is trained in Level 2 Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Learn more about her or set up an appointment on our website to learn more!

Sierra Stein, MFT-Intern Clarity Clinic NWI

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