In his research, Dr. John Gottman observed that partners continually made “bids” for each other’s attention, closeness, and reassurance. These bids were made through comments, questions, glances, and/or gestures. The couples seemed to be asking, on a regular basis: Are you there? Do I matter to you? Sometimes they got the responses they wanted. If they didn’t, they tried again.
You’ve seen this happen. It’s most obvious in children. Imagine a few moms relaxing at the park while their toddlers are playing in the sandbox. Mom is engrossed in conversation with her friends, and her 3-year-old tries to get her attention. If he’s unsuccessful, he doesn’t give up. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again! He’ll keep calling her; and if she doesn’t respond, he’ll get closer to her…and louder! He may even resort to attacking her to get her to pay attention to his needs.
Couples do this, too. If a sweet hello or a smile gets no response, partners will intensify their bids. Like the toddler, they may get louder, even attacking or criticizing. However, strategies like criticism will naturally elicit a negative response (defensiveness) and launch a negative pattern of interactions that could escalate into a full-blown argument. Not exactly what you were hoping for, right?
In addition, sarcasm is a common method of asking for attention without seeming to really need anything. Your needs for attention (and your vulnerability) are hidden behind a screen of purported humor. Sarcasm is also a very effective way of shooting yourself in the foot. It sends a mixed message. In reality, you’re asking for attention. But the message your partner gets is that he or she is dumb, clumsy, or lacks value — not a great way to get the positive attention you’re really looking for.
So what can you do with this information? Get involved in your own research by observing your own behavior. How many times and in what ways did you ask for your partner’s attention today? Did you get the response you wanted? How can you increase the effectiveness of your bids? I’ll talk more about that in the next Note.