"Where There are Friends, There is Wealth"
- Plautas (3rd century)
I live in a state where the law says that all employment is considered to be “at will.” I didn’t understand this at first, but what it means is that the employee can leave any time, and the employer can let you go at any time, because you are employed mutually at will.
In the world of relationships, this can be a harsh reality that smacks you in the face unexpectedly when someone leaves the relationship. Perhaps you have had a difficult breakup and discovered this reality. The harsh fact is, all relationships are “at will”. This is the necessary flip side of the coin that we all recognize, because love must be given freely; it cannot be forced.
One of my valuable lessons came from looking at relationships at the molecular level; the tiny parts that make up the relationship, namely, requests to connect. These requests are most obvious in the dating scenario, where two people are trying to see if they are a good fit and worth expending the energy to connect more, or if they simply move along to the next candidate. But we are all constantly making these requests, not only in dating or romantic relationships, but with our family members, coworkers, neighbors, down to the waiter or waitress at the restaurant. Famed author and psychologist, John Gottman calls these requests, “bids to connect.”
As he describes it, “There’s a bid and a response to that bid. Like cells of the body or bricks of a house, such exchanges are the primary components of communication. Each exchange contains emotional information that can strengthen or weaken connections between people.” (Gottman, The Relationship Cure)
It is critical to our relational success to understand this molecular level of relationships in ALL of our relationships. For example, if you are dating, you are making bids or requests to connect with people you are romantically attracted to. Instead of idealizing the moment of getting engaged or being at the altar and getting married, it would be better and healthier to think of those moments as the culmination of thousands of requests to connect which have been given and received and responded to with a desire to keep making many more of these. In fact, the seemingly mundane things are often requests to connect such as:
“How was your day?”
“How did that job interview go?”
“What kind of coffee can I get for you?”
“Would you like to meet for lunch today?”
“How was school today?”
… and on it goes all day, every day.
If a boss let you go, and you can’t figure out why, you should look at these requests to connect. How did all those little requests at work play out? If you are married and things have gotten stale and lack the sparkle of your earlier months and years in your relationship, then you have not realized that these daily questions of life are a request to connect and hold so much potential. So if you would like to bring back that excitement and romance and sense of constant desire in your marriage or significant relationship, then you HAVE to recognize these requests from others, become aware of your own requests, learn how to respond to them in a positive way, and learn to read others’ responses to your requests.
The fact is, that others have the freedom to respond to these requests. Love must be a free choice and relationships are “at will”. The main key is recognizing that a request can be responded to in one of three ways: turning toward, turning against, and turning away (Gottman, p. 16-17).
1. Turning toward:
This simply means any kind of positive response. Depending on the request and your interest, you may respond rather mildly; simple things like nodding your head, or saying “OK.” A more engaging response is to reflect back their emotion, “wow, that’s exciting” or ask another question to keep conversation going and show interest such as, “I’m sorry to hear that. What did you do when your boss treated you that way?” The response of turning toward can be both verbal and physical. Perhaps you move in for a hug, or to snuggle under a blanket. The way I like to think of it, and which connects to my previous post on being present is this: turning toward someone is saying “yes” to them in the moment. You are saying yes to how they are feeling, whether it is good or bad. It is saying yes, and being a yes with your body language, eye contact, conversational engagement.
This is good relating! What this kind of response communicates is all the things we all want to hear in relationship with others. The messages are: I hear you, I am interested in your experience, I accept you, I’m on your team, I enjoy being with you.
2. Turning against:
These responses are usually rather abrupt and abrasive. They are not neutral or apathetic. They make you take a step back, and that is exactly what the relationship does. These can range from the simple push away such as “go sit somewhere else, this is my couch” to the more critical low blows such as, “fine, I’ll do it. I always do everything around here.” The argumentative responses in this category often contain the phrase “you always…” or “you never…”. What these kinds of responses communicate is that they don’t respect you (or if it is you, that you are not respecting that person). Beyond just disrespect, it also means that there is hostility and contempt in the relationship. Deeper questions and discussion than we can handle here are needed and I would encourage open dialogue and discovery with the help of a therapist if this is something that you experience regularly in your relationships.
3. Turning away:
This kind of response is ignoring another’s request and treating it as unimportant. It has been said that the greatest insult to a person is indifference. It is the opposite of relating, but rather the choice to move away and do something else, seemingly more important. Sometimes it is a power move by an insecure person trying to establish dominance and direct the conversation. As long as they are in control of the conversation, they feel powerful and more important than the others who may be putting in requests to engage. To a simple request like “Hi, welcome home” a husband may ignore his wife and say “what’s for dinner? I’m starving.” That was perhaps a smaller example born of self centeredness, but the more direct ones can interrupt and change subjects, ignoring you are even standing there to greet someone else, for example.
The message here is the opposite of good relating. It means “I don’t care about your request. I don’t care about what you care about. Other things are more important, and it’s not worth my time.”
When we don’t receive a positive response to our request(s), we are very quick to jump to conclusions because of our fragile egos and own needs. When we reach out and make relational requests, we feel vulnerable. What if they don’t want to connect? What if they respond by turning against me and hurt me? Worse yet, what if they turn away and ignore me? Consequently, when our requests are not responded to in the way that we would prefer, we have very negative reactions.
Interestingly, research indicates that we follow a predictive pattern with our requests. First of all, the closer the relationship, the more intense and frequent our requests to connect. The opposite is also true, that the less close we are with someone, the less we request of them. Since our requests require varying degrees of vulnerability, we tend to follow a particular order of requests. We usually start with the easy stuff, asking first for things that require the least amount of energy, time, risk, and intimacy. Then, if the easy requests are met positively, we tend to increase the ask (Gottman, p. 30). A typical ladder may look like this:
1. Light conversation
2. casual joking
3. Sharing beyond small talk
5. Care, support, or empathy
6. Assistance with problem solving
7. Connection around deeper, more vulnerable subjects such as dreams, goals, values.
Relating is an “at will” kind of thing. Learn how to read the signs of peoples requests to relate, and you will succeed in relationships, and will be able to more effectively build your relational wealth. Many people have trouble reading these signs. Thus, the well known movie and book from 2009, “He’s Just Not That Into You” focusses on these relationship signals which single women misread all the time. But it’s not just single women who misread these relational cues. We all do because of our agendas and preferences. We wish the other person would respond differently so we fool ourselves into thinking they are responding toward us, when in reality they are not.
I am writing from “the promised land” because I learned to distinguish good responses to my requests from unhealthy ones. I reentered the dating world some time ago and understood the dynamics of people who are making bids. This time around I knew what to look for. In my search, I met the woman who is now my wife. But the reason I asked her to marry me was because she was and continues to be a constant “yes” to my requests. She moves in closer. She asks further questions in conversation. She shows that she cares in hundreds of ways. In the evaluation stage of our dating relationship, I watched her closely. I threw her into social settings to test her. I amped up my requests for authenticity and affection. Every cell in her body and word from her mouth was a moving towards me. Want to know if you’ve found a keeper? Evaluate this process at the molecular level of requests and responses. Yes, my wife is a free will agent and could leave me if she wanted. But we rack up dozens of requests and positive responses every day. This also helps weather the tough times, as we can reconnect quickly.
In order to invest in people, you have to master the request to connect. You have to realize that underneath what is actually being said, is the desire to connect. Learn to read them for what they really are at the emotional level. Learn how to respond positively, turning towards people as much as possible and appropriate to the level of relationship you have. I can guarantee that if you tend to turn away from people or against people, you will develop relational poverty. People don’t enjoy that kind of relating. So learn to turn toward and be a yes to people. I’m not suggesting you being a doormat. You have to stand up for your values. But if there is respect, then figure out how you can turn towards them and enjoy the happiness that comes with your relational investment.
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Joel is a husband, father, musician, and lover of life; especially life that is shared with the wealth of amazing friends and family he is blessed to have near.