Bid loneliness goodbye - Learn why it's so important to recognize emotional bids

Imagine for a moment that you've suddenly entered another dimension. You can see and hear everyone around you, but they cannot see you. You are completely invisible.

The ability to remain invisible presents some fun possibilities. Who hasn't ever wondered what it would be like to sit like a fly on the wall and hear what others honestly think about them? 

But such a situation would become frightening very quickly. Why? Because humans rely on one another for so many things, including companionship, comfort, and emotional support.

Sadly, many of us feel invisible even when we are surrounded by others, including our closest friends and family.

Stephanie Cacioppo defines loneliness as a mismatch between what a person wants or expects from a relationship and what they get out of it. She adds:

Because loneliness is a state of mind, being physically alone is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition to experience loneliness. One can experience a lonely state of mind while being with people at work, at home or even in a marriage. Income, education, gender and ethnicity don't necessarily protect you from loneliness, and it is contagious.

How can this be the case? According to Ellie Lisitsa:

Friendship is a wonderful and paradoxical thing. It seems to spring up out of nowhere, out of the beautiful chaos of daily life, to form on the easy basis of pure luck and chance. At the same time, despite such effortless conception, it requires a great deal of attention, intention, and care.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we can fail to provide the "attention, intention, and care" that our close relationships need in order to thrive. How can we avoid falling into this trap? By understanding an important, but little-known concept. Today's topic is "bids for connection" - a concept that I now consider incredibly important. It is also often referred to as "emotional bids."

As important as today's topic is, I can only trace its origins back to the 1980s. Most of what I'm about to share with you today is based solely on the research of John Gottman and his colleagues. But first, apart from preventing loneliness, why is this topic so important? Gottman writes,

How a man understands and responds to a woman will determine his eventual wealth, his social status, his energy and motivation for life, his resilience, his mental and physical health, how well his immune system works, how well he copes with stress, his happiness at home and at work, his self-confidence, his friendships, his connection to his children, how his children turn out, and actually how long he will live.

No other single thing in a man’s life will be as important as how he understands and responds to a woman’s emotions. ... People who live alone die sooner, are less healthy, are less wealthy, and recover from illness slower than people who are married. This is especially true of men.

In other words, the degree to which we are able to understand this subject affects nearly every aspect of our lives.

The history of this concept

John Gottman is well-known for many things. Among them are:

  • Identifying "The Four Horsemen" that signal an impending end to a relationship (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).
  • As featured in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Gottman was able to observe newlyweds interacting for a few minutes and predict with 90% accuracy whether they would still be together in ten years.
  • Specifying the "magic ratio" of positive to negative interactions that would identify a couple with a healthy relationship.

Gottman and Robert Levenson at the University of Washington carefully observed couples in an effort to find a pattern that separated the "relationship masters" from the "relationship disasters". After testing hypotheses involving depth of intimacy or reciprocity of interactions, Gottman and his team made a surprising discovery: 

Maybe it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversations that matters. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether couples agree or disagree. Maybe the important thing is how these people pay attention to each other, no matter what they’re talking about or doing.

In understanding relationship interactions, they found Stephen R. Covey's metaphor of the emotional bank account useful.According to Covey, "By proactively doing things that build trust in a relationship, one makes ‘deposits.’  Conversely, by reactively doing things that decrease trust, one makes ‘withdrawals.’  The current ‘balance’ in the emotional bank account, will determine how well two people can communicate and problem-solve together." Gottman came to describe the unit of currency, "the fundamental unit of emotional communication," as a "bid for connection."The use of the word "bid" strikes me as curious, because I generally associate bids with an offer to give or pay something, such a bid at an auction. Bids for connection seem more like requests to me. However the more I think about this, the more the word seems to fit. As a word nerd, I looked up the origins of the word bid and I found that it (like some other English words - see swallow, for example) actually comes from more than one language. The sense "offer (a certain price) for something or make an effort or attempt to achieve" comes from the "Old English bēodan ‘to offer, command’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch bieden and German bieten." However, another sense of the word, somewhat archaic in usage, can mean "utter (a greeting or farewell) to; invite (someone) to do something." According to Google's favorite Oxford English dictionary, this sense comes from "Old English biddan ‘ask’, of Germanic origin; related to German bitten." So since bids for connection are both requests as well as offers to strengthen the relationship, this term seems to fit quite well. I wonder if Gottman gave it as much thought as I have. I can only assume so. 

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the topic. I have gathered a wealth of information from one source: Gottman.com. I plan to analyze the information and compare it to other sources so I can present more information about this subject in the future.Many of the things I have harvested from gottman.com are in line with the information I have already published on this blog. By incorporating some of the things I've saved, I hope to enrich and deepen our understanding of some of these concepts. My biggest takeaway, which I haven't seen anywhere else, is to recognize bids for connection as what they are. Because oftentimes they can be camouflaged in hard-to-recognize attire. To begin, let's look at what bids include, view some examples, and consider how self-esteem affects bids for connection.

What bids include

In response to an emotional bid, we can choose to:

  • Turn toward the partner
  • Turn enthusiastically toward them
  • Turn away from them
  • Turn against them

It's very helpful to understand the underlying messages we send when we "turn toward" bids or when we turn away or against them. But for now, let's discuss the inherent inequity in this process.

When we initiate a bid, we're in a better position to recognize the bid, primarily because we're impacted by the response. Whether we realize it or not, the way the other person responds will evoke an emotional reaction in us. When a response is less than enthusiastic, or worse, when our effort to engage is ignored or even rebuffed, our internal response may range from mild annoyance to disappointment and even bitter anger.

In contrast, the person who receives the bid has more power. Consequently, the person will be less aware of their actions. Their response will likely be influenced by their current mindset. Are they busy? Distracted? Stressed? Irritated? Their focus will most likely not be on what the other person thinks about their response. That is unless they are familiar with the concept of bids for connection.

We learn to make bids very early in life. Since babies cannot ask for what they want, they use the only methods available to them. These include crying, whining, poking, and yelling. These are the default modes of communication and children (and adults) often resort to them when other methods aren't working. 

I appreciate the points Melissa Benaroya made on Gottman's website

Most of children’s negative behaviors are either bids for 1) attention or connection or 2) a sense of power or control. ... When children act out, you need to remember that the bid being made is actually the child crying out, “See me, involve me, make me feel useful” or “Let me help, give me choices.” 

This is true both for children and for adults. Often, what appears to be a complaint or even an attack is just an attempt to connect or control.

Examples of bids

Bids for connection range from simple bids for attention or interest to bids for affection and self-disclosure. Just having written an article about self-disclosure, I found myself wondering whether bids for connection would align with levels of self-disclosure, which is also known as the stairway of intimacy.

I didn't find a clear connection. However, I feel that I can classify bids according to at least three levels:

  • Bids for interest or attention. These don't require or imply a deep level of intimacy. Instead, they are everyday interactions.
  • Bids for more engagement. The relationship is more than just a superficial one. However, they don't require a lot of vulnerability.
  • Bids for emotional connection. These require vulnerability from one or both parties.

Let's take a look at some examples from each category. Notice that these don't always fit neatly into categories:

Level 1

  • “Look at what I drew in school today!” The underlying bid is, "Please give me some attention."
  • “Isn’t that the ugliest dog you’ve ever seen?” = "Please share an interest with me."
  • "Phoebe's on the way, can you give her our address?" Asking questions or requesting information doesn't assume a whole lot from the relationship.
  • "Could you take Rover for a walk?" "While you're up, can you grab the salsa?" These are simple requests. The underlying message is, "I trust that I'm important enough to you (= my relationship bank account is high enough) to ask you for a favor."
  • “I heard the funniest story today…” - a "bid for humor." This could take the relationship to the next level but it's still fairly low-key.

Level 2

  • "Do you like my drawing?" "How were the cookies?" "Maybe we should think about taking a trip next month.” These are "bids for enthusiastic engagement." It requires more than mild interest.
  • “Have you heard from Pat lately? The last time we saw her, she was about to have that procedure done.” This is a bid for extended conversation. It assumes the recipient will feel the expenditure of time on their part is justified.
  • Reaching out and tickling the partner. Or, "Let's get the chessboard!"  These are bids for play. It indicates a level of trust and familiarity in the relationship.
  • "Let's help Grandma outside." This is a request for help, or an invitation to work together, that goes beyond a simple request.
  • "Greta wants to go on a walk but my foot hurts." This is a request for help with problem-solving. In many instances, it can be mistaken for attempting to push responsibility onto the other party.

Level 3

  • “I’m really worried – I don’t think my new boss likes me.” This is a bid for emotional support. It's also self-disclosure. There's a higher emotional risk if the request is rebuffed.
  • "What've you been up to?" “So what happened at school today?” These are bids for self-disclosure. They are asking for vulnerability on the part of the recipient.
  • "I've been cooking all day, I'm so tired." The underlying bid is, "I need help to de-stress." However, it can easily be misread as a complaint.
  • Reaching for the partner’s hand, asking for a kiss or hug, or "Come cuddle with me while I read." These are bids for affection.

Gottman realized each bid for connection results in either a credit or a debit in the relationship bank account. However, it makes intuitive sense that higher-risk bids would have a greater impact. This leads to our next subtopic.

How self-esteem affects bids for connection 

As you can see from the examples above, we don't often ask directly for what we are seeking. Logan Ury explains why:

Bids are often purposely subtle because people are afraid to be vulnerable and put themselves out there. It’s scary to say, “Hey! I want to connect! Pay attention to me!” so instead, we ask a question or tell a story or offer our hand for connection. We hope we’ll receive connection in return, but if not, it’s less scary than pleading, “Connect with me, please!”

The amount of courage we display in making the bid, and thus the degree of directness, largely has to do with how secure we feel. In turn, this is largely determined by our self-esteem.

A 2018 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin uses the term "support seeking" rather than "bids for connection," but the concept is the same.Don, B. P., Girme, Y. U., & Hammond, M. D. (2018). Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships. In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 45, Issue 7, pp. 1028–1041). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218802837 This is the only reference to a non-Gottman source I'll make in this article. As Ury pointed out above, sometimes directly asking for social support, or bidding for connection, feels too risky.

In this case, individuals often engage in "indirect support seeking," which includes, according to the authors, "sulking, whining, fidgeting, and/or displaying sadness without disclosing the source of the problem."

Researchers concluded that individuals with low self-esteem tried to protect themselves from outright rejection because they believed that they couldn't handle being rejected by their partners. For example, saying, "I really need your support right now," might result in a flat-out rejection.

When their efforts to get help don't succeed, those who have low self-esteem may believe that their partners don't care about their needs. The hypervigilance they have for signs of rejection can cause them to create situations where rejection occurs, which negatively affects the quality of the relationship.

On the other hand, studies have indicated that individuals with high self-esteem tend to respond to rejection by reaffirming their own value and the belief that their partner cares for them. The authors add:

The way individuals seek support from their intimate partners is a surprisingly understudied aspect of social support, but one that is crucial to the overall success of support interactions.There is no reference to Gottman's work in this paper, which I found interesting. Maybe they are working within disciplines that don't have much cross-communication. Adding evidence to this claim, I couldn't find any reference to "emotional bids" or "support seeking" on Wikipedia. I'm always amazed when there's a concept I can't find on that voluminous website.

They concluded that when people have low self-esteem and are uncertain of their partner's positive regard, there will be a tendency to protect themselves in their relationships at the expense of being open, honest, and vulnerable. This creates a self-repeating cycle.

Takeaways

Among the useful facts we've established are:

  • Despite its importance, support seeking, or bids for connection, is not well understood by most people.
  • Whether we are able to gain the attention, interest, affection, and emotional support we need from others is dependent, in large part, on how well we respond to their bids.
  • Virtually every aspect of our well-being depends on how well we connect with others.
  • The ability to recognize other people's attempts to connect with us, especially close family and friends, can make us much happier.
  • Being aware that feeling secure or insecure can create a feedback loop that is either positive or negative can motivate us to seek ways of boosting our self-esteem and improving our relationships.