The timing couldn’t have been better. A friend pointed me to an article on The Atlantic that speaks to issues of emotional support – not only their execution, but the good intentions that motivate those we love. Good intentions alone are not sufficient, but they are important.
Naturally, we are familiar with the expression “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” And still, we all forget the milestone birthday of a friend or have an off-day when we’re not attentive enough to the person we love, though our intentions are never anything but the best.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
We also know that actions speak louder than words. When my spouse used to forget our anniversary right up until the last minute, running through a supermarket checkout line and grabbing the bedraggled $6.99 mixed flower special, his intentions were appreciated – but more awareness of the importance of the day to me – a different set of actions – would have gone far.
To some degree, I can look back on my now terminated marriage and think: I did not make it clear enough that remembering an anniversary was important to me; I thought it ought to be important to us. I wanted it to be important to him.
While there was certainly never any ill intent, my ex never forgot his travel schedule, his tennis matches or his golf weekends with buddies; the comparison, even now, stings. And while I may have a tendency to take on the responsibility for this (no doubt common) oversight – “I should have expressed how important it was to me” – instead, I will acknowledge that there are broken places in relationships that we choose to ignore or dismiss. At times, these cracks are more gaping than we think.
Masters (and Disasters) of Love
Returning to the article in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith’s exploration of “Masters of Love” is fascinating. She quotes psychologist John Gottman, who has spent some 40 years on the study of what makes good relationships good and what breaks them.
Thus, we have the notion of “masters and disasters” when it comes to love.
Netting things out:
… masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
And let’s just say – disasters did not.
This begs the question: Exactly how is this climate of trust and intimacy created and sustained?
Bids for Attention = Bids for Connection
While acts of both kindness and generosity are referenced throughout the article, specific examples are revealing. Dr. Gottman talks of the ways we hope to elicit responses from a spouse. These are not overt requests per se, but a sort of reaching out that may occur with what seems like an off-hand remark. This is a desire to share, an invitation to connect. And connection of course leads to intimacy.
In one scenario, the husband is a bird watcher, and he points out a finch hoping that his wife will look. Dr. Gottman explains that this is about much more than a bird and whether or not she shares this particular interest.
Speaking of couples Dr. Gottman has studied, the article elaborates:
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example… [conversation] requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily…
The wife… can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away”… People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging… showing interest and support… Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper…
The Weight of Polite Indifference
I find those words staggering – and enlightening. Memories are streaming in, and I can feel the sensation of drowning in years of polite nods, occasional grunts – and absolute indifference – to my attempts to engage in topics that were important – to me. I learned to keep my own counsel, and not to raise certain topics.
These small slights, however benign at the time, accumulate. They press on us. Their heft grows. The spirit feels crushed; we begin to feel insignificant.
If there are already fissures in the relationship, won’t this constancy of dismissal worsen them – regardless of the circumstances or the intent? Isn’t this a sign of not valuing your partner? Isn’t it as much of a relationship killer as acting out in blatantly destructive ways, whether or not any of this is intentional?
Can’t “turning toward” the bidder – actively engaging by truly being interested – potentially bring a couple closer? No pom-poms or splits required, but isn’t this akin to the issue of emotional support that I liken to the cheerleader?
The Atlantic article continues with a lesson that many of us will understand:
… neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
As for good intentions, yes, they matter. But occasional moments of distraction or preoccupation are a far cry from disregard for ongoing needs.
Needs that may be as straightforward as a brief, pleasant conversation – that is nonetheless real.
Too many instances of neglect, whatever the reasons, will not eradicate the hurt or distance that results from insufficient emotional involvement, much less simple displays of interest in what your partner cares about.
The article goes on to explain active engagement in more detail, and the importance of sharing the good times as well as the bad.
Case Study: Big Mac, Small Fries
Not too long ago, after three grueling days and nights of work in a row, demoralized and bleary-eyed, I answered the phone as the man in my life called before leaving work.
He asked about dinner. Sometimes I cook; sometimes he does.
“Please stop on the way home at MacDonalds,” I said.
“I want a Big Mac and fries,” I said. “It’s been a terrible, long, frustrating day and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be at it.”
I wanted comfort food – junk food – a rarity for me.
“What if I make you a great grass-fed burger instead, and maybe some home fries? Then it’s healthy comfort food,” he said.
60 minutes later we shared a great burger, beautifully garnished, 20 minutes of conversation, and then I returned to my computer to complete my project. Not only did my partner respond to my “bid” with good intent, but he understood my underlying stress, he acted on it in a helpful and respectful way, and he was truly on the side of my better angels.
Looking back, I do wonder: Did I tell him or show him how much I appreciated his response to my “bid?”
How Do Loners Do With “Active Engagement?”
Given that I need (and like) substantial amounts of time alone, and to some, I may be considered a loner, I am not necessarily easy to live with. My inclination is to feel that those who want more are emotionally needy, yet that designation is neither fair nor accurate. I suspect that my guy needs more “couple time” than I do, and I see how he thrives on it.
This can be a struggle for me. Some of that struggle is purely logistical — a matter of the long hours and demands involved in how I make my living. I wish it were otherwise. And, thinking through the examples in “Masters of Love,” I begin to see how he puts out bids, many of which I respond to and others in which I only go through the motions. I also note more clearly the bids I extend that he doesn’t respond to – either through disinterest, or perhaps, not knowing what to say.
We both could do a better job of “turning toward,” though in comparison to my former marriage, we’re doing well.
My challenge is to address more of his bids, without giving up what I need as a writer – and a person – my quiet space. Equally critical: the necessity to articulate the ways in which I need his active engagement in areas that are not of inherent interest to him, and my being reasonable in those expectations.
It comes down to communication – open, precise, non-judgmental – the hallmark of good intentions, good connections and of course, good relationships.
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