Want A Better Relationship? Start Turning Towards Your Partner More

couples therapy turn towards not away connection intimacy closeness problems disconnection marriage

I often recommend Dr. John Gottman's most famous book, Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, to any of my clients interested in improving their relationship, married or not. In couples therapy, I teach these skills so that partners better understand conflict styles, communication, and strategies which help romantic relationships thrive long-term.  In today's post, I discuss the important principle of "turning towards your partner". 

Don't Be That Couple

We've all seen "that couple". The disconnected, unhappy couple standing in line at the movies, or out to eat at a restaurant. Either bickering constantly or not even talking to one another. Sometimes it's one person desperately trying to connect while the other one basically ignores them or shuts them down in a rude way. You may wonder, "Why are they even together?"

But... We Have All Been That Couple

If you've been in a long-term relationship, you've likely been "that couple" at one point in time. No couples are perfect, and most couples go through periods of disconnection and conflict.

Staying Connected Takes Work.

Falling in love can feel relatively easy for many people. The "staying in love", however, is the process that confounds most people. It doesn't have to be difficult.  But it takes consistent effort.

The majority of couples in my therapy office want to know what they can do  to reconnect with their partner once they've lost their connection. A much smaller number of proactive couples seek to learn how to continue to maintain the connection they still have. Unfortunately, an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, and most couples wait until the state of their relationship has gotten really bad. It would have been a lot easier to help them earlier on, before the problem escalated.

If you're struggling with disconnection between you and your partner, just know that there is hope. But one big romantic gesture won't do the trick. One of the things you'll need to change is how you interact with your partner in very small ways.

Turn Towards Your Partner

Every day, you have several, sometimes hundreds of opportunities to connect. From sun-up until the sun-down, there are infinite "sliding door" moments, each of which present you with a choice for closeness or distance with your partner.

Mundane Moments of Infinite Importance

Take a moment to think about all the seemingly commonplace interactions with your partner in a typical day. They're much richer in important than most people realize. Here are just a few:

  • Waking up
  • Making meals
  • Eating
  • Chores
  • Texting
  • Phone Calls
  • Sitting in the car together
  • Sitting in the living room together
  • When you are reunited after work
  • Bedtime

What you do in each of these interactions is less important than how you do it. You can eat together and completely ignore one another, or even talk, only going through the motions, without connecting. Reaching out for connection, and responding with interest is key. In each of these interactions, you can either "turn towards one another" (fostering connection) or "turn away from one another" (fostering disconnection). 

Small Moments, Big Impact

6am. Your wife's phone alarm goes off, telling her it's time to get up. It woke you up, too, although you want to sleep longer. You hear her sigh with frustration. You know that she hates getting up early, but she's been feeling stressed about deadlines at work, so she's started going into the office earlier.  She sighs again, and says, "I want to hit snooze but I guess I shouldn't.  I need to get up". 

You're still very tired, and want to sleep longer. In this brief "sliding door" moment, your wife is sharing an opportunity in your relationship. Whether or not she realizes it, she's making what's called "a bid for connection". The offer is now on the table for you to seize, ignore, or reject.

There are infinite possible ways you could react to your spouse's "bid for connection" in this situation. But they usually fall into only one of two categories--turning away from or 2) towards your partner.

1) Turn Away From Your Partner

You could respond in ways that create distance and disconnection from your partner:

  • Pretend to sleep.
  • Ignore her. Don't saying anything. 
  • React negatively. Sigh with a dramatic, frustrated tone.
  • Respond negatively. For example, say, "I'm trying to sleep here."
  • Show your discontent. For example, cover your ears with the pillow or covers.

2) Turn Towards Your Partner

You could respond in ways that create closeness and intimacy with your partner:

  • Show physical affection. For example, reach for her and pat her back, showing her that you feel empathy for her.
  • Respond positively and with empathy. For example, say, "That stinks. Let's spoon for one more snooze before you have to go." 
  • Respond neutrally, but respond nonetheless. For example, say, "Don't want to go to work today, huh?"
  • Respond by asking a question that indicates your interest in her.  For example, say "What's going on at work today?"

When you turn towards your partner during their bid for connection, you're basically saying, "I hear you" and "I see you" and "I understand". You're being emotionally available to your partner. Turning towards your partner meets the basic human need to be seen, heard, and understood--especially by your partner. 

Why Turning Towards Your Partner Matters

Whatever your choice in moments like these, it counts. All the small choices throughout the day add up, too. Then the days, weeks, months, and years build up a mountain of choices you've each made during these momentary bids for connection. 

We can't be there emotionally 100% of the time, but we can try to be there for them most of the time, and vice versa. And just as importantly, we need to be able to recognize when we've been emotionally unavailable and failed our partner. Apologizing, repairing the bond, etc., tells your partner, "Hey, honey. Sorry I messed up. I'm ready to be here now."

Quantity Builds Quality

The number of times you turn towards your partner and respond to them creates the quality of connection you feel towards your partner. The number of "bids for connection" matters, too. These are offers for closeness just as important as turning towards one another. 

The number of times you turn away from your partner, ignore them, or reject them--this is what creates distance and disconnection. You choose how many times you connect or how many times you disconnect from your partner. 

The More You Turn Towards Your Partner, The More You Want to Keep Doing It

The more you respond to each other, the more connected and fondness you feel for your partner. It builds the goodwill between both of you, and each partner wants to interact more, thus creating a positive feedback loop. 

However, the less you respond to each other, the more likely you are both to stop making bids at all. This downward spiral can lead to breaking up, divorce, or just staying together in a state of dissatisfaction, thus living like roommates rather than feeling like you're in a relationship.

Turning Towards Your Partner Builds Romance

When you turn towards your partner during a bid, you're building romance and connection. You're also building a sturdy reserve of intimacy. You've been consistently showing your partner that you treat them like they're worth listening to. They're worth responding to. They're worth caring about. These feelings will put someone in the mood. Alternatively, being ignored, not responded to, or rejected is a turn off for most people.

Turning Towards Your Partner Protects Your Relationship

When your partner sees your efforts to turn towards their bids for connection, they begin to feel consistently attended to, loved, and close to you. It helps cushion your relationship from the everyday stresses of the world.

When you've been storing up so many positive moments, it adds to what Dr. Gottman calls the “emotional bank account”. When you've been investing in your relationship by consistently turning towards your partner, you have greater leeway during conflict to get mad at one another, but quickly remember how much you love and care about your partner.

We are much more likely to be gracious to our partner when they're snippy or having a bad day when they typically are attentive and kind. If you haven't been feeling much goodwill from your partner and vice versa in a while, and if you have both consistently turned away from each other, thus neglecting each other, it becomes more and more difficult to withstand "bad days" and conflict.

How Connected Do You Feel to Your Partner?

The amount of "turning towards" your partner is very connected with how much romance you're likely to feel, too. Take a moment to ponder the following questions, excerpted from Dr. John Gottman's book, Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. How true do each of these questions feel in your relationship? 

Answer Yes or No:

  • Do you enjoy doing small things together, like folding laundry or watching TV?
  • Do you enjoy look forward to spending my free time with my partner?
  • At the end of the day, is your partner glad to see you?
  • Is your partner usually interested in hearing your views?
  • Do you really enjoy discussing things with your partner?
  • Is your partner one of your best friends?
  • Do you think your partner would consider you a very close friend?
  • Do you love talking to each other?
  • When you go out together, does the time go very quickly?
  • Do you always have a lot to say to each other?
  • Do you have a lot of fun together?
  • Do you like to spend time together in similar ways?
  • Do you have a lot of common interests?
  • Do you have many of the same dreams and goals?
  • Do you like to do a lot of the same things?
  • Even if some of your interests are somewhat different, do you enjoy your partner’s interests?
  • Whatever you do together, do you usually have a good time?
  • Does your partner tell you when they have had a bad day?

Answered Mostly Yes - Your Relationship Is Probably Connected & Healthy

If you answered yes to most of the above questions, you probably feel pretty connected to your partner. It's likely that you're often “there” for each other for the small events in your lives. So much so that you've built up a hefty "emotional bank account" that will help you two get through the (inevitable) rough patches in your relationship.

It's those daily moments that matter most – when you’re doing laundry, cooking dinner, or having a quick text exchange during the day. These small opportunities to connect truly make up the core of a relationship. Having a surplus in your emotional bank account allows romance to last and sustains you through the bad times, mistakes, hurts, and difficult changes.

Answered Mostly No - Your Relationship May Be In Trouble

If you answered "no" to most of the above questions, your relationship probably doesn't feel as connected as you would like. That's okay though. Sometimes relationships need some improvement. It's time to start turning towards each other.

What To Do If Your Relationship Is Disconnected

Are there little moments in your day that you may be taking for granted? Begin changing the way you think about the everyday interactions with your partner. Those little moments in your day, however small, can make your marriage not only more stable and connected, but more romantic.

Every time you make the effort to listen and respond to what your spouse says, or to help him or her, you make your marriage a little better. And recognizing these moments, especially when you see your partner responding to you, could help you to increase the positive interactions in your relationship. Research by Dr. Gottman found that happily married couples have five positive interactions for every negative one. You can move closer to this 5:1 ration simply by starting to increase the number of times you respond to your partner, and decrease the number of times you ignore your partner or reject their "bids for connection".

 Start Investing in the "Emotional Bank Account"

Keep track of what you do to improve your connectedness with your partner, and subtract the things you did not do. Do not count what your partner does or does not do. Comparing your performance to your partner's would create a very unhealthy resentment. Talk with your partner about which tasks could help you to feel connected. A list of potential connectedness-oriented tasks is offered in this exercise.

Start Having More "Stress Reducing Conversations"

There is a certain way to talk to your partner to prevent everyday stress from poisoning your relationship. It starts with actively listening to your partner when they're stressed. Everybody gets stressed sometimes, and each of you have the ability to soothe one another by caring about what stresses your partner and really listening.

Active listening isn't about solving problems. You put your own opinions aside to just understand where your partner is coming from. Feeling truly heard by your partner is one of the best ways  to de-stress. The conversation should increase the feeling of calm and reduce the amount of tension and conflict you feel. Here To create more stress reducing conversations, you should:

  • Take turns (one person talks at a time, don't interrupt)

  • Do not give unsolicited advice  (active listening is not about problem solving--it's about being heard and understood; if they want your advice, they'll ask for it)

  • Show genuine interest (make eye contact, nod, stay focused on what they're saying)

  • Communicate your understanding (i.e. say "Mmhmm", nod your head, paraphrase what they've said)

  • Take your spouse’s side (i.e. say, "I can't believe he said that to you! They are being ridiculous!")

  • Take the ‘we against others’ attitude (i.e. say, "we are so much more ___ than them)

  • Express affection (physical affection such as giving a hug, or emotional affection such as saying "I love you")

  • Validate their emotions (i.e. say, "of course you feel that way!")

When Your Spouse Doesn't Turn Towards You Enough

So maybe you are pretty good at turning towards your partner already. But maybe they aren't so good at it. What do you do in this situation? Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What did you feel when your partner didn't turn towards you? Communicate this to your partner. Think of one thing your partner can do differently, and ask for it.  
  • What triggered their turning away? Were they distracted, stressed, busy, mad at you, etc.?
  • Did you in some way contributed to it? If so, figure out what you can do to make it better. 

Don't make the mistake of assuming that the distance or loneliness you're feeling is solely your fault or your partner’s fault. A relationship is built by two people, and you both have to work hard to create intimacy and closeness.

Calm Conversations Are Essential

Also, you can't talk about these difficult subjects if one of you or both of you is too upset. You can only talk about this when both of you feel calm. 

What Gets In The Way

So many possible dynamics can interfere with closeness. One or both of you may be depressed, stressed and irritable, have difficulty expressing appreciation, or difficulty expressing affection. One person may feel like a martyr, or victim, etc. Sometimes an past resentment or betrayal that hasn't been worked through is getting in the way of closeness. 

Start with Yourself

Start with taking responsibility for your part. Overall, what has your contribution to this mess? How can you make it better? What is one thing you could ask your partner to do next time to avoid this problem? You can't change your partner, but you can change yourself, and you can ask your partner for what you need. They can decide if they're willing or not.

Final Thoughts

Asking yourself and your partner these questions about the topic of  "turning towards" one another won't prevent every argument, or immediately make you feel closer to one another, but it will make it more likely that you'll start turning towards each other more, and thereby develop a deeper friendship, which will protect you against destructive conflicts. Be patient. Don't get discouraged if things don't change quickly. This takes time.

Need help? Want some guidance on this topic or any other issues? If you would like to get help for yourself or your relationship, please consider individual or couples therapy. Call me at 678-999-2290 or email me at Stephanie@CounselingATL.com to schedule an appointment.

ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.