Relationships Don’t Just Happen, Do They?

Our culture is extremely sophisticated in a number of areas, but in relational intelligence we are ignorant. In this digital, fast-paced culture, relationships and connection are made and killed quickly, often by a text message or a tweet. But meaningful relationships that last don’t just happen. They are constructed intentionally over time between both people.

In his most recent book The Relationship Cure, Dr. John Gottman explains the basic inner workings of relationships and how to construct them. He noticed that more and more people are lonely in the midst of a sea of people all around them. So, he put hundreds of couples and groups into a home in Seattle, WA, and studied them for how they built or destroyed their relationships. What emerged from his research was astonishing, yet wonderfully simple.

Through his research, he found that everyone makes “bids” for emotional connection to other people. These “bids” come in all types of forms: verbal, non-verbal, actions, gestures, looks, and even electronically. In order for a relationship to begin to be constructed, the “bid” must be received and returned by the other person.

It is like a relational building block or two-by-four is given to the other person, and if they accept and lock the relational two-by-four into place, it can be the beginning or continuation of building a relationship. It takes sending and receiving a lot of these “bids” over time to construct a relationship, but this is how relationships are built.

The relationship itself is a “thing” that is made and exists separate from the people who build it. Let’s think of a relationship as a dwelling place or building. Maybe the relationship is a lean-to friendship; maybe it’s an elaborate house for a couple to exist in, or perhaps it’s a small cabin where old friends meet and talk. The kind of relationship built depends upon the sending and receiving of all kinds of bids between people over a period of time.

Gottman found that we all need many kinds of relationships in order to have a healthy and balanced life. We need relationships at work; relationships with friends; relationships with family; relationships with a group, and many other relationships. Each of these relationships must be built by sending and receiving various bids for emotional connection.

There is no such thing as an instant relationship; it is actually two people who both want to be in a relationship with each other continually sending and receiving bids in quick succession.

He found that in healthy couples and friends there can be as many as one hundred and ten bids sent and received in an hour. It is these threads or relational two-by-fours (bids) that construct a relationship where two or more people can “live” within.

Gottman also found that bad relationships (or relationships that don’t happen) miss the bids of the other person in about 50% of the cases, so the crucial construction of the relationship doesn’t happen. If we get better at sending and receiving bids from other people, our lives can begin to grow many more relationships than we currently have.

Many people only want one person or a select few to be in relationship with them so they immediately and subconsciously reject the bids of others who are not deemed worthy. This is a shame because we just don’t always have the best instant radar about people and the relational value that person or group could add to our lives. Some of our best friends, mates, and groups come from people we were ready to write off.

For most of us, this process of interacting with people differently than we have been will require growth and change, but the result will be new relationships. Gottman suggests that we become experts at receiving bids and sending bids to and from others. We will need practice, and we can expect to do this poorly at times.

Just know that there is no one bid that will cement a great relationship. It takes a series of bids sent and received over time to establish whether we and the other person or group are reliable enough to continue moving forward with.

So what do these bids look like?

Bids are things like saying “hi;” looking a person in the eyes; noticing something positive about the other person; complementing them; asking the other person a question, maybe about something they enjoy; making a joke or funny comment; standing next to or near a person; smiling at them; or stopping and listening when they are talking.

Receiving bids means that you are responding positively to the other person’s bids. Not and over-the-top positive response but an appropriate response, like carrying on the conversation, answering the person’s question, or laughing at their joke.

Scripture explains this very same process in Ephesians 4:29 when it says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” 

The word edification means building up or constructing something through what you say to the people you meet each day. Use words that construct a relationship, rather than tearing it down or halting it altogether, between yourself and the other person. It may only be to a waitress, delivery driver, or random stranger, but it may be to a co-worker, a family member, or a friend. When you are sending bids or responding to a bid, it can build a relationship that can enliven your life and theirs.

4 Relationship Building Tips:

  1. Intentionally send more bids for an emotional connection to the people in your life.
  2. Turn toward the bids of others more often and try to respond to at least 80% of the bids of the key people in your life. It may only take a few minutes to receive their bid and send a corresponding bid back. Every interaction does not have to be an hour over coffee. In fact, these can usually be just a minute or two or less when it begins to establish the construction of a relationship.
  3. Take the time to build relationships; don’t just look at your phone for one more interesting factoid that can keep things from getting awkward or boring. Engage with people. It is possible in our world to receive information without relationship and be a brain on a stick, someone who is full of knowledge but has no one to share it with and no practiced skills to construct the relationships needed to make life truly interesting.
  4. Join a group and begin sending and receiving bids from the people in the group. Yes, you won’t do it perfectly, and there may be a few awkward moments, but you will get better and you may meet some very interesting people. It may be an exercise group or a hobby group you are interested in. It could be a volunteer group doing good in the community or a church group discussing interesting spiritual and relationship topics. It could be a book club, sending out smiles, questions, answers, presence, jokes, and so forth.

See which bids work and which ones don’t. Respond to the bids of others and allow your relational world to expand. You may be surprised by the interesting and warm world that is waiting for you if you venture into the relational construction business.

Follow Gil Stieglitz:

Dr. Gil is a catalyst for positive change both personally and organizationally. He excites, educates, and motivates audiences all over the world, through passion, humor, leadership, and wisdom. He is the Discipleship Pastor at Bayside Church in Roseville, CA. He has led seminars in China, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and all over the United States. He has taught at several Christian Universities and Seminaries (BIOLA University, William Jessup University, Western Seminary). He is on the faculty of Principles to Live By, an organization committed to teaching God’s principles in a life-giving way.

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