When does a broken relationship start to go wrong?
Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.
These seemingly big moments are not the defining ones that make or break relationships. Rather, it’s almost always the small things, like that time two weeks ago when your friend asked you if you wanted a cup of coffee. How you responded to that question may have influenced the relationship more than you can imagine.
These apparently inconsequential moments determine the fate of relationships more than arguments. Psychologist John Gottman can determine the fate of a married couple with an accuracy rate in the 90s.
Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, a fascinating new book, explores his research. Gottman looked at those “seemingly meaningless and inconsequential exchanges between people.”
These emotional signals are what Gottman called “bids.” And it turns out that how we respond to bids is the key to successful relationships.
Sweat the Small Stuff
When you use plenty of bids that move you toward one another, research shows that you laugh more, support each other more, dramatically reduce the odds of divorce, and get more sex. (That alone makes this post worth reading, right?).
Couples that make more bids toward each other, rather than against or turning away, are more likely to stay together.
Men who ended up divorced generally turned away from their wives’ bids 82% of the time, “whereas men in ultimately stable relationships only ignored their wives’ bids 19% of the time.”
Bids are present in every relationship.
How can we make more effective toward bids?
Positive bids could be as simple as a laugh, a smile, a touch. The point is acknowledging.
Psychologists have identified four types of positive bids. Healthy relationships have a mixture of these.
Most healthy relationships have a ratio of five positive to one negative response. There are three simple tips for keeping your approach moving toward, rather than away, from someone.
This is when people respond to you but you wish they hadn’t. Responses in this category include “mocking, ridiculing, belittling and making sarcastic comments about a bid or bidder.” These are the responses that make the other person feel bad, and they are the virus of poor relationships.
Here are six against responses. If you’re like me, you winced while reading these, with my last relationship in mind.
When someone moves away from you with one of these responses, you feel undervalued and unappreciated. If you stay in the relationship for years, it sows the seeds of resentment, and eventually you stop making toward bids.
I’ve been working hard recently on changing my against bids. I find that sometimes, especially when I’m busy, my default is to reply with a negative bid. To counteract this I’ve been doing a few things. First, I try to count to 3 before responding. This helps me ensure the other person is done speaking and gives me more of a chance to consider the impact of what I’m thinking of saying. Along the same lines, active listening is a great tool to help ensure you’re understanding what other people are saying. Finally the book recommends one that I’ve just implemented, which is basically trying to step out of the situation and name what’s going on. Something along the lines of “I notice we’re not having a productive conversation right now and we’re both raising our voices; how can we approach this in a better way?”
This is when you ignore someone outright or act uninterested.
When you repeatedly ignore or dismiss the bids of another person, the situation escalates. They often become hostile and defensive. Most of us turn away without even knowing that’s what we’re doing.
What do turning-away responses look like?
Gottman’s research indicates that turning-away bids are more prevalent than against bids. The effects of both are disastrous.
What happens in stable relationships when one person is met with a turning-away response is that they rebid about 20% of the time. In couples headed for divorce, rebids were rarely attempted. It should come as no surprise that turning-away bids increase conflict.
A lot of us stonewall. We turn away and disengage, which has a disastrous effect on relationships. A better way to handle the situation is to accept the bid and “explain to the other person that you feel the need for space.”
Here are three ways to help you avoid turning away:
If you’re like me you’ll spend a bit of time reflecting on past relationships and thinking about your bid patterns. “With a little mindfulness and attention, you can change your patterns and get the relationship back on track, usually without the other person even noticing.”
Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is designed to give your brain a workout.
This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.
Join over 50,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.
Read next: 5 Secrets to Clicking With People