For the past 50 years, we’ve been putting love under the microscope. As psychologists, we’ve studied more than 40,000 couples about to begin couples therapy. We’ve also been happily married to each other for 35 years, so we know a thing or two about successful relationships.
In a lab study, for example, we could predict with 94% accuracy whether a marriage would last — after observing the couples for just 15 minutes. One of the biggest determining factors was how often a couple “turned toward” their partner instead of “turning away.”
The No. 1 relationship hack: ‘Turning toward’
When a couple turns toward each other, they make and respond to what we call “bids for connection.” Bids can range from little things, like trying to catch your attention by calling out your name, to big things, like asking for deeper needs to be met.
The happiest couples are savvy enough to notice when their partner is making a bid and drop what they do, if necessary, to engage. An example: Your partner, scrolling their phone, remarks, “Oh, this is an interesting article.” (This is a bid for connection.)
You can respond in one of three ways: By turning toward – Acknowledging them and engaging with their attempt to connect: “Oh yeah? What’s it about?”. By turning away – Actively ignoring or just not noticing their attempt to connect: You keep typing the email you’re working on while staring at your screen.. By turning against – Irritably or angrily shutting down their attempt to connect: “Can’t you see I’m trying to work?”
The act of turning toward builds affection and a sense of teamwork, which helps strengthen the foundation of a lasting relationship. Of course, it’s impossible to always turn toward your partner. But in our lab study, the couples who stayed together for at least six years turned toward each other 86% of the time. Those who got divorced only did it 33% of the time.
How to practice turning toward your relationship
If you feel like turning toward has faded from your relationship — don’t worry. Like riding a big ship, there can be a lag before the course correction you’ve done starts to show up. Turning the wheel a little bit and then a little more will pay off. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Do a 10-minute check-in.
You can pick a time to check in with your partner when you can listen and not rush off anywhere. It can be in the morning, over coffee before work, or in the evening after you’ve put the kids to bed. Ask them this simple question: “Is there anything you need from me today?”
This allows your partner to reflect on their needs and makes it clear that you want to be there for them. It also gives them hope that you’ll try to respond affirmatively if they state what they need. Make a true effort to meet your partner’s needs, whether “I need a break from the kids” or “I’d love to have lunch with you.”
2. Pick up the pennies.
Just as you would pick up a coin or dollar bill if you saw one on the street, think of every possible moment of connection or engagement as something of value, even if it seems small or fleeting. Pennies add up over time!
Keep an eye out for these invitations to connect: Eye contact, A smile, A sigh, A direct ask for your help or attention, Saying “good morning” or “good night.”, Asking for a favor, Reading something aloud to you: “Hey, listen to this…”, Pointing something out: “Look at that!”, Calling your name from another room, Seeming sad or down, Physically carrying something heavy by themselves, Seeming frustrated.
3. Don’t give up just yet.
Your emotional availability won’t always align neatly with your partner’s emotional availability. And that’s okay. Here’s how to handle it: When your partner makes a bid, but you can’t engage – Don’t ignore the request. Briefly explain why you can’t be available: “I’d really love to hear about this, but I have to do [X] right now. Can we talk about it after I finish my meeting?”
When you bid and they don’t respond – If they miss a couple of your requests, keep trying. But if it’s a pattern, point it out: “I don’t want to be critical, but I’ve been reaching out to you. What’s happening for you right now preventing you from responding?” (They might be busy, stressed, or overwhelmed.)
When a bid is made with negativity – Your partner’s bid can sometimes sound like they’re trying to pick a fight (e.g., “It wouldn’t occur to you to make dinner tonight for once, would it?”). Ignore the negativity and respond to the deeper, hidden bid: “I get that you’re frustrated and tired. I’d be happy to make dinner and give you a break.” These practices will help you if you’re dating and wondering what’s next or if you’ve been married for 50 years. All you need is a willingness to try.
Drs. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman are the co-founders of The Gottman Institute and Love Lab. Married for over 35 years, the two psychologists are world-renowned for their work on relationship stability and divorce prediction. They are co-authors of “The Love Prescription: Seven Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy” and “10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy.” Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
Ash Lamb is an illustrator and designer based in Barcelona, Spain. He spends his time deconstructing and illustrating ideas for creative entrepreneurs. He also teaches people from all around the world how to create impactful visuals at visualgrowth.com.