Most Relationships Die From 1000 Paper Cuts

by dj2016 |


My 25 plus years as a couples counselor have taught me that its usually not the big fights that cause relationships to struggle or fail. Instead, it’s the small wounds caused by how each of your respond to one another’s bids for connection that predict whether your relationship with thrive or flounder.

A bid, as defined by marital researcher John Gottman, can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch – any single expression that says, “I want to feel connected to you.” A response to a bid is just that – a positive or negative answer to somebody’s request for emotional connection.
Bids for connection come in an infinite variety of styles – some which are easy to see and interpret, others that are nearly indecipherable. Bids can be verbal or nonverbal. They can be highly physical or come totally from the intellect. They can be sexual or nonsexual. They can be high- or low-energy, funny or dead serious. Bids may include questions, statements, or comments, the content of which might involve:

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Observations
  • Opinions
  • Invitations

Some bids are nonverbal, including:

  • Affectionate touching, such as a back-slap, a handshake, a pat, a squeeze, a kiss, a hug, or a back or shoulder rub
  • Facial expressions, such as a smile, blowing a kiss, rolling your eyes, or sticking out your tongue
  • Playful touching, such as tickling, bopping, wrestling, dancing, or a gentle bump or shove
  • Affiliating gestures, such as opening a door, offering a place to sit, handing over a utensil, or pointing to a shared activity or interest
  • Vocalizing, such as laughing, chuckling, grunting, sighing, or groaning in a way that invites interaction or interest

Bids and responses to bids can be over major questions such as:
“Will you marry me?”
“I will, I absolutely will!!!”

Or they can be the routine exchanges of everyday life:
“Get me a soda while you’re up, please?”
“Sure, need anything else?”

Bids can be understated:
“That skirt looks so good on you.”

Or they can be quite direct:
“I want you.”

Positive responses to a bid typically lead to continued interaction, often with both parties extending more bids to one another. But a negative response to a bid typically shuts down emotional communication. All bids cease. The game is over

How important are responses to bids for the success of a relationship? Gottman found that at minimum there must be 5 positive responses for every negative or non-response offered by the person being reached out to. Couples who don’t reach this minimal threshold do not last.

Gottman hypothesized that the reason for this has to do with the impact of good feelings that a positive response provides the person who is making the bid. Over time, the amount of good feelings provides a sort of emotional piggy bank that one can draw on to weather the storm of fights or other problems in a relationship. Then, when a conflict arises, they can draw on this reservoir of good feeling. It’s as if something inside unconsciously says, “I may be mad as hell at him right now, but he’s the guy who listens so attentively when I complain about my job. He deserves a break.” Or, “I’m as angry as I’ve ever been with her, but she’s the one who always laughs at my jokes. I think I’ll cut her some slack.” It’s almost as if all the good feelings they’ve accumulated by responding respectfully and lovingly to one another’s bids form a pot of emotional “money in the bank.”

The five most common negative or non-responses discovered by Gottman and his research team are:

  1. Belligerent Responses: These are challenging or angry in nature. You get the sense that the spouse is looking for a fight and would argue with whatever the other says, regardless of what they say.

WIFE:  Here’s an interesting article…
HUSBAND:  Can’t you see I’m trying to read?

HUSBAND:  Do you want to watch TV tonight?
WIFE:  So that’s all you think I’m good for, right? Sitting in front of the tube watching mindless TV shows all the time?
HUSBAND:  Of course not. What would you like to do? Maybe you’d rather go see a play instead.
WIFE: Oh, like that’s supposed to make me feel better? (Mocking) “Maybe you’d rather go see a play instead.”

  1. Contradictory Responses: These are when a spouse seems intent on starting a debate or argument.

WIFE: Would you like a tangerine?
HUSBAND:  That’s not a tangerine. It’s a Satsuma orange.

  1. Domineering Responses: These involve attempts to control the other. The goal is to get the partner to withdraw or submit. S/he may take on a paternal tone.

HUSBAND: Do you know where I’d love to go someday? India!
WIFE: Don’t be ridiculous! You’d hate it there, with all its poverty and overcrowding. Scandinavia- now there’s a place you’d really love!

WIFE: My car’s in the shop. Can you give me a lift?
HUSBAND: I suppose, but only if you’re ready at five P.M. sharp.

  1. Critical Responses: These are broad attacks on the partner’s character. They’re different from a complaint, which focuses on a particular event or specific behavior. People speak in global terms when being critical, using phrases like “you always…” and “you never…” Critical responses are often loaded with blame or betrayal:

HUSBAND: I’m feeling really tired. I need some time alone this afternoon.
WIFE: That figures. You’re always so lazy and self-centered. All you do is think about yourself.

WIFE: Have you got a minute? I’ve got some questions about how to do this.
HUSBAND: Okay, but make it quick. I can’t afford to hold your hand all the time.

  1. Defensive Responses:  These are when one spouse gives up any responsibility for matters at hand. If one spouse is upset about something, the defensive anger responder may act like an innocent victim of misplaced blame.

HUSBAND: What a day I had! I’m exhausted.
WIFE:  So you think my day was a picnic? I worked my tail off, too!

WIFE: I’m worried about the bills.
HUSBAND: It wasn’t my idea to buy the new car.

Any of these sound familiar? Habitually reacting to your partner in these ways communicates that:

  • Your need for attention makes me angry.
  • I don’t respect you.
  • I don’t value you or this relationship.
  • I want to hurt you.
  • I want to drive you away.

If these patterns sound familiar to you and you find it difficult to break the pattern please contact me at 240-485-6053 or  My over 25 years of experience can help you find new and more constructive ways of communicating.

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