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The Secret to Successful Family Relationships

Why do you usually talk to someone? You might assume that your discussions are mostly to exchange information. If you think about your dialogues more carefully, you will notice that almost all your talking really has an alternate goal: to create, develop, or nurture a connection.

For example, a father might ask his young daughter how she slept last night. He probably does not simply mean to inquire just how comfortable the bed was or about the temperature in the room. Dad’s real goal is to express his concern for his child. He asks for the facts about her sleeping in order to demonstrate his love and caring for his daughter.

Similarly, if a mother asks her adolescent son why he came home past midnight the previous night, she is not really searching for the facts. She is probably seeking to convey a message both of concern and the importance of adhering to rules. A major part of the dialogue, the interpersonal connection, is unspoken. Even non-verbal cues, such as voice tone, shape of the mouth, or body posture, can add to the communication.

John M. Gottman, PhD, in his book The Relationship Cure, uses the term “bids for connection” to describe the underlying goals most of us have when we communicate with another. A bid can be something as small as a wink, a partial smile, or a quick kiss. Bids also can be whole statements or full conversations.

The unspoken goal of a bid is to create an emotional connection with the other individual. Each of us probably creates and receives hundreds of bids for connection each day from the people with whom we interact. Our relationships are built on our noticing bids from others and the responses we give to the bids.

There are three different responses that people can give to bids, similar to three situations one can encounter on the tennis court.

Imagine that you and a friend are on the court and your friend serves you the ball. You might serve back, and a pleasant and challenging volley will ensue.

But perhaps when your friend serves you, are looking at your phone and would rather text than return the ball to him. You see the ball coming and you choose to ignore it. How would he feel? The chances are that he would feel a bit bothered that you ignored him.

Or maybe you’re really upset that he served while you were texting so you angrily slam the ball back to him. How would he feel then? It is probable that he would feel indignant, insulted, and hurt.

Similarly, Dr. Gottman outlines that when someone makes a bid for connection to you, there are three possible responses that you can return:

  • You can volley it back pleasantly, termed “turning toward”
  • You can ignore, called “turning away”
  • You can return it spitefully, known as “turning against”

The more turning toward responses there are in a relationship, the more positive the emotional connection will be. In Dr. Gottman’s research with couples, he found that couples who had about a 5:1 ratio of turning toward compared to other responses had a flourishing relationship. On the other hand, couples who had a ratio of about 3:2 of positive to negative usually could not stay married for the long term without counseling.

Dr. Gottman’s research can be applied to any relationship, within or outside of a family. But it can greatly enhance family interactions. For example, when a child says “good morning, Dad,” he does not really mean “I am hereby blessing you with a good morning.” His unstated goal is to enhance his connection with his father. So, if Dad responds warmly in kind, a beautiful volley takes place and the connection is augmented.

On the other hand, if the father is distracted on his phone and mumbles a low “’mornin’” back to his son, he is turning away. Consistent reactions like that will not improve a relationship. Now imagine what would happen if Dad says, “Good morning? It would be a good morning if you put your clothes away last night!” That would be turning away, like a slam back on the tennis court.

Similarly, if a girl comes home from school stressed and dismayed by her new teacher, new classmates or load of work, and she discusses it with her brother, she is making a bid for connection. It is brother’s choice to pick up on the bid and respond with a validating and empathic response, which will cement another brick in the tower of their relationship building. On the other hand, an unenergetic, distracted response might hurt their relationship’s growth. A response of, “well, you’re lazy and you’re not committed enough to school” might convey her brother’s authoritative advice, but won’t do a good job of enhancing the sibling relationship.

Parents, children, and siblings can exchange tens of bids each day. Each one can go a long way to enhancing and improving a relationship if it is turned to properly. Sometimes it is hard to see conversations as bids for connection. In truth, they are volleys on the court of family dynamics which family members can choose to respond to positively or negatively. Their decisions will not just affect the matter being discussed but their long-term relationships.

Tennis anyone?

Family talking photo available from Shutterstock

The Secret to Successful Family Relationships


Steven J. Maybruch, MSW, LSW

Steven J. Maybruch, MSW, LSW, is the creator of The Circle of Calm Program™, a groundbreaking wristband/ e-book combination which creates confidence, positivity, and calm in kids and adolescents. He is a psychotherapist specializing in treating anxiety, relationships, and mood disorders and the co-founder of The Relationship Couple, LLC. Steve blogs at The Circle Blog.


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APA Reference
Maybruch, S. (2018). The Secret to Successful Family Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 21, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-secret-to-successful-family-relationships/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.