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 instance, we could tell with 94% accuracy whether a marriage would last after just 15 minutes of watching the couples. 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 are doing, 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 them and irritably or angrily shutting down their attempt to connect: “Can’t you see I’m trying to work?”
The act of turning toward someone 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 like you would pick up a coin or dollar bill you saw on the street, think of every chance to connect or engage as something valuable, even if it seems small or fleeting. Over time, pennies add up!
Watch out for these opportunities to connect: Eye contact, smiling, sighing, A direct request for your help or focus, Greeting people with “good morning” or “good night” Asking for a favor, Someone reads you something: “Hey, listen to this…” Bringing attention to something: “Look at that!” They came from another room, calling your name. They had a sad or down look. They were carrying something heavy on their own and looked frustrated.
3. Don’t give up just yet.
Your emotional availability won’t always match up perfectly with that of your partner. And that’s all right. Here’s what you should do: If your partner makes a bid and you can’t accept it, don’t just ignore it. Explain briefly why you can’t be there: “I’d love to hear about this, but right now I have to do [X]. Can we talk about it when I’m done with this meeting?”
When you bid and they don’t answer, try again if they miss a couple of your requests. But if it happens more than once, point it out: “I don’t mean to be mean, but I’ve been trying to get in touch with you. What’s going on in your life right now that’s making it hard for you to answer?” They could be busy, stressed, or too much for them.
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 bad things and answer the deeper, more hidden request: “I understand that you are upset and tired. I’d be glad to cook dinner for you and give you a break.” Whether you’re dating and not sure what to do next or you’ve been married for 50 years, these habits will help you. You just have to be willing to try.
The Gottman Institute and Love Lab were both started by Drs. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman. Married for over 35 years, the two psychologists are world-renowned for their work on relationship stability and divorce prediction. “The Love Prescription: Seven Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy” and “10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy” are both books that they wrote together. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
Ash Lamb is a designer and illustrator who works out of Barcelona, Spain. He spends his time deconstructing and illustrating ideas for creative entrepreneurs. At visualgrowth.com, he teaches people from all over the world how to make powerful visuals.