All that’s important is the ordinary things—making a fire to boil bath water, pounding rice, pulling weeds and knocking the dirt from their roots, or pouring tea. Those blown scarves, a moment more beautiful than the drapery in paintings by a master. It is this life . . . the momentary events, which is the diamond. —Dogen Zenji (Robert Gray)
The movie Sliding Doors portrays two parallel worlds, one where the main character, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, walks through a sliding door and one where she does not. It illustrates how a tiny moment in time can have large repercussions based on how one engages with that moment. The movie is an apt metaphor for relationships (Gottman), as it is how you respond to the seemingly minute and mundane interactions sprinkled throughout your day that influences the quality of your emotional connection to your partner. While these moments may not look like much on their own, they are the building blocks of a healthy relationship which, when put together, make the difference between couples who stay tougher and thrive and those who do not. Entering through the sliding door moments in your life, often as brief as a heartbeat, can make all the difference in your relationship.
Marriage researcher John Gottman found that small, seemingly insignificant exchanges are actually extremely important for the health of relationships. He called these daily moments “bids for connection”; the acceptance of a bid is called “turning towards.” An example of a positive interaction is as follows: Partner A: “Looks like it’s going to be a really hot day.” Partner B: “Yeah, Another scorcher huh.” The key is not the dialogue but that both partners experience a connective moment. If partner B ignores the bid, “turning away,” or replies negatively, “You’re always complaining about something” (turning against) then a building block has been taken out of the relationship. The importance of these daily interactions applies also to parents and children. A two year old girl is outside watching her father water the garden, she hits her toe and cries. If her father either ignores her or yells to stop (turns away or turns against), an opportunity to connect has been missed. Over time, these interactions influence what kind or relationship will exist as the girl becomes a teenager and adult.
Sliding door moments are small, distinctive instants in time where you can either enter into an interaction or stay outside it. One incident does not undo a relationship, but cumulatively a pattern of disengagement or negative interaction can. When a bid for connection is not reciprocated, it makes it more likely that the partner initiating the bid will not try again (Gottman). Below are a few tips on how to enter into sliding door moments:
- Cultivate Awareness: Use mindfulness to scan the moment, looking for your partner’s bids for connection and opportunities to initiate a bid. This will feel more comfortable with practice.
- Accept Your Partner’s Attempts to Connect: You may notice times when you don’t respond, or when you write-off a bid for connection. Focus on actively paying attention and acknowledging connective attempts. If you have trouble doing this see “Self-Manage.
- Initiate Bids for Connection: Focus on connecting with your spouse throughout your day in ways that suit your personality: text messages, a phone call, a touch on the shoulder, a comment about the day. These do not need to be wine-and-roses dramatic moments. In fact, date nights and big events can make things worse when the small building blocks for connection are not there. And don’t give up if a bid is not accepted.
- Talk about Connecting: Discuss, in a non-blaming way, your patterns of connecting. You can only take ownership for your own part: “I tried to offer a hug earlier and it didn’t seem to be the right time. Would it be okay to try again in 5 minutes?”
- Self-Manage: If you find your emotions rising, getting angry at your partner’s bids for connection (“turning against”), self-soothe first. Once calm, return to the process. You may miss your partner’s attempts to connect when focused on the negative; with self-management it will become easier to see these momentary interactions.
- Reset Missed Opportunities: When you may have missed a sliding door moment, try redoing it. In therapy, I help couples learn how to do this by focusing on the process of connection as it occurs in the room. Couples then learn to do this on their own. Redoing a missed opportunity prevents guilt or shame from building, emotions which can paradoxically make it harder to connect with your partner in the future. Don’t beat yourself up for missed moments but do learn to stop, retrace your steps, and try again: “You asked me about the weather a few minutes ago, sorry I didn’t say anything. Can we try that again?” This resetting will recalibrate your internal sensors so that next time you are more aware of the moment. To a 2 year old: “Daddy didn’t hear that you wanted to play sorry, can we try now?”
- Plan for Connection: Train yourself to scan the present for opportunities to connect and plan to allow and initiate bids for connection in the near future. It may seem contrived at first but with practice will become natural.
- Seek Qualified Help: If you find it hard to break negative patterns, see a trained and experienced therapist. Good couples counseling involves more than just an occasional summary suggestion. It is an active process of bringing awareness to the patterns which do not work and helping you craft better ones in the moment.
One of the myths of relationships is that they don’t take work. In reality, relationships involve many daily interactions. The flames are kept strong by the tiny sparks of daily connection. These moments serve to calibrate and refine your intimacy sensors, they say, “We are good together, we are connected.” Although on their own they are only brief moments in time, together they have the power to heal, strengthen, and build good relationships. Life really is about the small moments.
References: Gottman, J. & J: Bridging the Couple Chasm. The Gottman Institute (2000-2012). Howitt, P, [Director]. Sliding Door. Paramount.