'The Relationship Cure' is manual for emotional connection

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

When psychologist John Gottman first began videotaping couples interacting in an apartment laboratory, he was disappointed with the seemingly trivial nature of their conversations.

"But after a while we finally realized that these conversations weren't as mundane as they first seemed," says the University of Washington marital and relationship researcher. "We were seeing how people were making bids for emotional connection with their partner and how they responded to those bids."

These transactions - making and responding to emotional bids for connection - are at the core of Gottman's new book, "The Relationship Cure," to be published later this month by Crown Publishers.

These bids can be a question, a look, an affectionate touch on the arm or any single expression that says, "I want to feel connected to you," he says. A response to a bid can be a turn toward, away or against someone's request for emotional connection.

Gottman says people don't get married, make friends, or try to maintain ties with siblings to have those relationships fail. Yet many fail because people don't pay enough attention to the emotional needs of others.

For example, research from his apartment lab showed that husbands who eventually were divorced ignored the bids from their wives 82 percent of the time compared to 19 percent for men in stable marriages. Women who later divorced ignored their husband's bids 50 percent of the time while those who remained married only disregarded 14 percent of their husband's bids.

Gottman says his research also shows that bids and turns help regulate conflict between people. Many conflicts are about the "conversation that never took place but needed to," a conversation that was fundamentally about emotional connection.

All of these bids are needs that are expressed by an individual's emotional command system, a concept recently developed by Jaak Panksepp, a Bowling Green State University neuroscientist. He found that there are at least seven specific systems in the brains of all mammals that coordinate the emotional, behavioral and physical responses needed for functions related to survival, such as rest, self-defense and procreation.

Gottman and his co-author, writer Joan DeClaire, gave these systems descriptive names: Commander-in-Chief, Explorer, Sensualist, Energy Czar, Jester, Sentry and Nest-Builder. The Commander-in-Chief, for example, is the emotional command system that coordinates functions related to dominance, control and power, while the Sentry directs matters pertaining to worry, fear, vigilance and defense. People, says Gottman, differ in how much they like to have each of these systems activated, and understanding how your comfort levels differ from other people's can be significant when you make a bid for connection.

"Bids are about expressing needs and they all fall into one of these command systems," he says. "From doing therapy, I've noticed that a lot of people are not emotionally aware. They don't notice or are unaware of what their partner is saying. This is emotional illiteracy. They are unable to read a facial expression or voice. This book is a manual for emotional connection."

The system of bids and turns and emotional command systems works broadly across all kinds of relationships, not only marriage, according to Gottman. And opportunities for making and responding to bids abound. A typical happy couple may make 100 bids over the course of the dinner hour. Bids also can be as ordinary as an encounter in the grocery store.

"The clerk may say to you, 'How are you?' You can say, 'Fine' and that's it. Or you can say, "Great, how are you?'" says Gottman. "That's a pretty ordinary conversation and most exchanges with strangers seem trivial. But they enhance life, make life seem more pleasant and give you a different sense of the world around you when people turn toward you."

It's just a matter of remembering to treat people the same way you would if they were guests in your home, he believes. In a close relationship these bids and responses are critical because they build the relationship.

"I had one couple in counseling and the husband said his wife never checked the oil in her car. He thought she was careless, but it turned out that she never knew a car engine needed oil. I think it is the same with relationships," Gottman explains. "People don't know how to maintain relationships and there is a great deal of misinformation out there. A relationship is about these small moments, these bids and responses. It is the way intimacy and trust are built."