My husband has a thing about sunsets. If we aren’t together when he sees a spectacular sunset, I will receive a picture of it on my phone. Fifteen years ago when we moved into a new house, one of the first things he did was build a deck on the second story with tempered glass so we would be able to sit on the deck and view the lake and mountains in the distance.
Right after the deck was complete, one night after dinner, he walked outside while I walked to the sink to start doing dishes. He came running back in and reached around me from behind, putting his face close to mine and whispered in my ear, “Come on, you have to come see this amazing sunset with me.” I had five children between ages one and nine and was stressed about getting things cleaned up, helping kids with homework, and getting them to bed. I shrugged him off and said, “I can’t. I’m too busy.” Even after he suggested that I come see the sunset and we do the dishes together, I was unwilling to leave my post at the sink.
I have often regretted that moment in my marriage. It was the last time for a long time that my husband asked me to join him to view the sunset. I felt so bad about it that later I bought us a special swing just for sitting and watching the sunset. When he asks me to look at the sunset with him now, I go.
My husband’s request was what John Gottman and Nan Silver would have called a “sliding door moment,” which happens when one partner makes a bid for emotional connection. In these moments, a partner can either slide the door open and walk through, or “keep it shut and turn away.” Gottman’s longitudinal process research on couples revealed that most of the time if a partner makes a bid for connection and is rejected, he or she will not bid again. Gottman makes the distinction between “turning toward,” and “turning away.” When my husband wanted me to go see the sunset and I didn’t, I was “turning away,” or keeping the sliding door shut. It was a small rejection of him.
Couples often generate these patterns without even realizing they are rejecting their spouses, usually because rejection is not the intent. The reality is that we are busy, and we fail to realize how important these micro-moments are. Collectively, they matter. A lot. Repetitive patterns of turning away leave spouses feeling unwanted, and over time can lead to distance and resentment.
Shifting the pattern is easy, but first you have to be aware, which starts with watching. If you have a partner who has given up “bidding,” for connection, you can actively walk through the sliding door. Today. And there really are some amazing sunsets out there.
Following is an adaptation of fourteen ways Gottman and Silver suggest to figuratively walk through the sliding door:
- Pay attention to what your partner says
- Respond to simple requests
- Help or work with a partner
- Show interest or excitement in partner’s accomplishments
- Answer partner’s questions or requests for information
- Chat with a partner
- Ask about the events of your partner’s day
- Respond to a partner’s joke
- Help a partner destress
- Help a partner problem solve
- Be affectionate
- Play with your partner
- Join your partner in adventure or exploration
- Join your partner in learning something
From John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, New York: Simon & Schuster (2013).