When two people have been in a committed relationship for a long time, a certain sense of familiarity develops. If the partners in this relationship have lost the feeling of closeness, romance, or sexual attraction, that sense of familiarity can turn negative. What resembles a marriage without romance, sexual energy, or intimacy? A sibling or roommate relationship.
Negative Sentiment Override
In this kind of ‘sibling’ relationship, partners regularly experience interactions that feel competitive, challenging, and unproductive. Both partners may feel reactive, judgmental, and frustrated with their communication and each partner prepares for battle in every conversation. In the Gottman research, repeated experiences of negative encounters contributes to an environment characterized by negative sentiment override or NSO.
Think of NSO as the weather of a relationship. When there is positive sentiment override, the weather of the relationship feels warm and welcoming, it invites connection and safety. We have more grace for our partner’s mistakes, and we feel compassion for them which helps us forgive their mistakes. When the relationship is in NSO, the environment feels like stormy weather, with darkness and impending doom. Couples are more likely to perceive agenda and judgment in their communication and are hypervigilant for slights and digs. They are more likely to blame and assume defects in their partner, and not have as much compassion or forgiveness resulting in responding harshly to each other.
A common way for couples to get into NSO is from daily or small repeated experiences of feeling rejected or responded to harshly when one person tries to bid for the other person’s attention. A bid is any gesture, verbal or nonverbal, that asks for your partner’s support, affection or attention. The Gottman research showed that in satisfying relationships, partners were turning towards each other 86% of the time. In relationships that were headed towards dissolution, partners were turning towards each other 33% of the time. This dramatic difference speaks to the impact that bids have on the atmosphere within a relationship. It is the small things we do with and for our partners every day that carry the most weight in the quality of a relationship and how we perceive our partner.
How We Respond to Bids
The way we respond to our partner’s bids is not just impactful in the moment; it can have long lasting consequences. In relationships characterized by frequent bids and turning towards, the partners feel cared for, important to each other, and seen and heard by their partner. Attachment research suggests that feeling seen and heard are two important variables in secure relationships. When partners regularly turn away or turn against their partner’s bid they experience a lack of safety, closeness, romance, and sex. Repeated experiences of turning away generates feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and isolation. Partners in these relationships stop bidding for connection, turn away from each other even during positive moments, start living parallel lives and may eventually divorce.
The damage from this cycle
Repeated experiences of our partner turning against our bids has an even more harmful effect. In the short term, the partner whose bid was turned against might go silent and stop bidding as often. On the outside, the partners may exist in a tense impasse where they avoid creating any conflict. But on the inside something significant begins to change. We tend to experience a turning against as a rejection. Over time, this leads to internal feelings of fear or hostility, as well as resentment and judgment. Partners begin to silently “trash” their partners in their heads instead of cherishing them, or perceive their partners are selfish, rude, disrespectful or a whole host of other labels. Partners might diagnose or label their partner’s personalities which is rarely useful or productive in a relationship.
Why turning against your partner’s bids is so harmful
The internal dialogue of devaluing our partners might not be evident in our behavior and the relationship may appear stable while underneath there is a bubbling volcano. When conflict erupts, and it eventually does, even a minor trigger can unleash pent up resentment, hostility, and judgment which becomes the fuel for an explosion of anger and contempt. The partners may be shocked and crushed by the intensity of the vitriol directed at them and not recognize that the frequent moments of turning against have built up into anger and resentment. Couples in this pattern also find that their fights become more frequent, last longer, and are harder to repair or recover from.
How we respond to our partners on a daily basis in daily interactions matters a great deal. We may not be aware of how we are taking our frustrations or stress out on our partners by turning against their bids. However, by developing a conscious awareness and making the choice to be kind, respectful, and receptive to our partner’s bids the relationship can improve. This change is absolutely critical not only for the health of our relationships but also our individual health and well being.