Happy Couples Sweat the Small Stuff!

by | Apr 17, 2019 | Resolving Conflict | 10 comments

Why Happy Couples Sweat the small Stuff

It’s not big, blow out fights that wreck a marriage. It’s how we treat each other day to day. And that’s why happy couples sweat the small stuff!

I like to run a series on the Wednesdays of each month so that we can explore one topic in more detail. And this month we’re talking about how to feel emotionally close and how each of you can feel as if  your emotional needs are met.

We’re going to explore what it means that happy couples sweat the small stuff. Essentially what I’m talking about is that happy couples do two things: they pay attention to the little things in marriage; and they deal with stuff while it’s still little, rather than letting it blow up. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that they make a big deal out of every little thing. Only that they express what they’re feeling and they ask for what they want when it’s still a little issue. And that’s important!

Other posts in our emotional connection series:

I want to take today, though, to explore in more detail something I talked about in a podcast a while ago–how happy couples respond to “bids for connection.” John Gottman, who is an awesome marriage researcher who has analyzed the way that couples act towards each other, the way they use body language, and so much more, is able to predict with 90%+ accuracy how a couple will fare in the next 5 years after watching their interactions for just a short time. And one of the things that he talks about at length is how couples respond to these tiny “bids for connection” throughout the day.

It’s not big, blow out fights that wreck a marriage. It’s how we treat each other day to day. And that’s why happy couples sweat the small stuff!

Gottman was the one who first talked about how each marriage has an emotional bank account, which you feed by showing your partner that you care about them and that you love them. If you’re going to make a “withdrawal“–say by bringing up an issue you’re not happy about; being gone for extended periods of time; or having one of your inevitable bad days, then it’s important to have a high balance in that bank account already.

Next week we’re going to talk about the withdrawals side of the equation–how to bring up small things that you’re unhappy about. But today I want to talk about how to make deposits into the bank account, and make your spouse feel emotionally connected.

Here’s what’s important:

In healthy marriages, the ratio of how people respond to these bids is 5:1. So for each negative response, or lack of response, there are 5 positive ones.

In unhappy marriages, the ratio is 1:1. That means that in unhappy marriages, there are still many, many healthy bids for connection. But in order to feel emotionally close and safe, that ratio must be more than 1:1. It’s not enough to make it even. You have to really show your spouse that you care!

And how do you do that?

It’s really quite simple.

Turn towards each other instead of away from each other.


Recognize Bids for Connection

A bid for connection is any time your spouse does something which signals that they’d like to engage in some way or that they’re reaching out to you. Here’s what bids may look like:

  • Your spouse says something, sighs, or makes some gesture revealing how they’re feeling.
  • Your spouse brings you a coffee or a glass of water or does some small thing for you.
  • Your spouse enters the room where you’re sitting.
  • Your spouse smiles at you.
  • Your spouse asks you for something.
  • Your spouse touches you.

In order to respond to these bids, though, we have to recognize them–which means that we can’t be so much in our own world that we ignore our spouse. You have to actively pay attention to one another. In fact, actively paying attention is one of the big things that separates marriage masters from marriage disasters (Gottman’s terms, not mine, but I love them!).

One example Gottman used: Your husband is reading an email, and he sighs. That’s a bid for connection! He’s revealed to you something that he’s feeling. So what can you do?

Respond Positively to Bids for Connection

Acknowledge what he revealed and show that you care. You could say something like this:

  • “That sounds bad! Did something happen?”
  • “Oh, oh. What’s wrong?”
  • “Can I help?”

Now, of course, simply acknowledging isn’t enough. You have to actually care. If you said something like, “What is it now?“, that’s not a positive interaction!

Or here’s another bid. You’re watching Netflix, and your spouse places a cup of coffee beside you. Smile, say “thank you”, look at them full on the face. Or, even better, get up, give them a kiss, and then you can go back to your show. That way you communicate, “I know you did something nice for me and I appreciate it.”

What would happen, on the other hand, if you did nothing? Your spouse brings you coffee, and you don’t even look up. How will your spouse feel? Will they do it again? Will they feel valued? Or will they feel dismissed and ignored?

Or how about this bid: You’re making dinner and you hear your husband come in the door. That can be a bid for connection, too! Do you walk to the door and greet your spouse, or do you keep doing what you’re doing and ignore your spouse? (This is one I’m working on! It really matters to Keith that I greet him when he comes home, but sometimes I get engrossed in chopping something and I wait for him to enter the kitchen. It’s so much better if we can meet halfway!).

Or how about this one: Your spouse is sitting beside you and he takes your hand. Do you smile at him, continue to hold his hand, or lean towards him? Or do you lean away or take your hand away?

Turn a Negative Response into a Positive One

What if your spouse gives a bid for connection and you don’t feel that you can give them what they want right now? What if, for instance, your spouse says something like, “Hon, I’d love to do something together tonight. What do you think?” And you’re staring down a pile of paperwork you need to get done before work tomorrow, or you’re just exhausted, or something else is preventing you from engaging with your spouse.

Then turn this negative thing into something positive.

“I truly wish I could. I love doing X with you! I just can’t tonight. But can we put it on the calendar for Tuesday?”

You’ve now communicated, “I do want to spend time with you. I do value you. I just can’t right now.”

Sometimes the negative cycle with bids for connection begins because we miss the significance of what our spouse is doing, or we think the bid is a criticism, rather than a cry for help. For instance, if your spouse says something like,

“I’m so tired. There’s no way I can get everything done I’m supposed to get done. I don’t even know if I can make it to Tommy’s game on Friday!”

You can interpret this to mean that your spouse is trying to get out of an important parenting duty, or you could see that your spouse is frustrated and hoping that you can help him destress.

“That’s really rough. Tell me all the things you need to do and let me see if I can help.” Or you could say, “Why don’t you just take 15 minutes right now and do nothing. I’ll get you a cup of coffee. You look so overwhelmed; just take a minute to yourself.” Or you could try, “It’s been like this before, and you’ve always gotten through it. I know you’ll get through it again. When do you think it will lighten up? Let’s figure that out!”

The key in sweating the small stuff: You just want to show your spouse that you care, and that they matter to you.

In fact, Gottman found that these small things are far more important in a marriage than any big romantic gestures. In his book The Relationship Cure, Gottman wrote:

From The Relationship Cure:

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.

So pay attention to the small things, and respond to bids for connection! I really think if more spouses did that–showed that they cared, even in the very little things–then people would feel valued, connected, and loved. And that helps people feel close!

Turn towards each other instead of away from each other.

Here are some more ways to build up that emotional bank account:

We’ll end our series talking about how to make some withdrawals in the emotional bank account, and how to tell your spouse what you need. But this week, let me challenge you:

  • Watch for bids for connection that your spouse makes
  • Respond to those bids in a way that shows your spouse, “I care.”

What do you think? Are these bids for connection hard to notice? Do you think these make a difference in your marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!

Why Happy Couples Sweat the Small Stuff: Pay attention to the little things in marriage

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Tina

    Thank you for another practical post. These are so profitable.

    I think the bids for connection can be so hard to notice….depending on what we the receiver are doing.
    Am I
    -busy with the kids
    -mentally checked out
    -on my phone
    -talking to someone else
    -have loud music on
    -carrying a burden or grude about something in my day
    -upset with my spouse from earlier
    -focused on my task/to do list
    -focused on rescuing those around me such as neighbors and friends

    I am not saying that we need to sit on the edge of the couch and just be waiting for any sign of connection coming in from our spouse so we can respond. That is not healthy! But I am saying, how divided am I? How busy is my day? How thin am I being spread? Because when I am spread too thin, I am
    -short tempered/impatient
    -self focused as my own basic needs aren’t being met by me
    -behind schedule

    And when these things are present in my day, I won’t or don’t see my spouse’ attempts at connection.

    I am finding that the more margin I have in my day, the more success I have at spotting the connection points from my spouse.

    Dan Allendar says, that the closer we get to our shame story, the more difficult it is to be kind.

    I know that for myself, business or being checked out, are ways that I try to stay away from my shame story. And then I am not kind-aware and responding to my spouse. Sometimes I will do anything possible to stay away from the reality of my own sin or shortcomings. Being present enough to engage with a spouse in meaningful connection means, facing myself too. When I slow down, spend time being aware of my own life and relationship to God, then I am more open to facing reality and therefore my spouse’ attempts at connection. But, this self avoidance and therefor lack of meaningful connection is probably a post for another day!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Glad you liked the practical nature! and I totally agree with you about the shame stuff. It’s hard to be mentally and emotionally present with someone, because it requires living in the moment–which is scary when you’re filled with shame or you feel broken and you’re trying to run away from yourself. Perhaps part of the healing God wants to do in us is to teach us how to be emotionally present, and still accept ourselves as God loves us.

  2. Lindsey

    It makes me really sad that there are people who grow up so emotionally stunted that they need to be told “When your spouse holds your hand, smile and lean towards them instead of pulling your hand away.” or “When your spouse sighs, ask them if they’re ok.”. These are just basic things people automatically do when they actually love someone, and CARE about them. I feel like as a society we are forgetting what that means.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know what you’re saying. I think we get so caught up in ourselves that we literally lose sight of who is right in front of us.

  3. Ann

    How do you recover when a loving husband, very much a positive responder to bids, starts ignoring bids involving his wife’s body? Like she hops in the shower with him – admittedly not realizing how rushed he is for work – and he doesn’t even glance below her face? Or after lovemaking in the dark, she helps him with something, and his eyes jump from her face, to her naked body, to -immediately- away? Or she’s answering a question post-shower, and when he finally looks down, he grins and looks (finally) for just a second before taking the dogs out. He insists he’s sexually attracted and that I’m wrong to look for specific reactions; I don’t start out testing him but feel rejected and humiliated repeatedly when trying to wear things he likes, show skin… Six months ago – and post-partum – he couldn’t keep his eyes ( ?), hands, words to himself. He says my post-baby “self-concept” is unappealing, but my attempts to confidently be what I was, and he used to love, are meeting indifference.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Ann, that’s really a tough one! I think the best course of action is just to talk about it. I know that’s a hard thing to do, but to say something like,

      “I love you, and I love having a baby with you, and I love that we have a family now. I want to stay super close, and I want you always to be my priority. But I also need reassurance that, despite my mom body, you still think of me as desirable. It’s important to me. Can we talk about that?”

      And then just tell him what you need. I know that’s an awkward conversation, and he may not always respond well. But it’s okay to be firm and say, “this is important to me. I’m going to fight for our marriage and our intimacy, and so I need you to engage with me here.” That’s okay! And also ask him, “what do you need from me now that you’re a dad? How can I show you that you’re still the most important person to me?” Make it a two-way conversation, and it may be easier!

      • Mike S.


        There is a good chance that you sent him signals (intentionally or accidentally) that his approaching you in these situations was unappreciated or would be rejected. Husbands can be quick to learn these lessons and he will be very reluctant to take the chance again for fear of rejection or being “teased.” You may have inadvertantly made him pay a price in the past for the very actions that you now expect from him. He has had to reflect and decided to back off.

        Sheila didn’t really go into it, but males often make bids for connection that are rejected outright by their wives because they are “sexual” and the wife views that as an unacceptable form of connection.

        • Lisa

          Mike, it sounds like she’s done the exact opposite. But I think it would be good for her to ask that question. Hopefully he will answer honestly and they can go from there.

          • Rebecca Lindenbach

            I think what Mike is getting at is how many women, when their husbands compliment them or say they look hot, give them 5 reasons why they’re wrong.

            Husband says, “You look great in that!” And she goes, “Ugh I just wish I could lose these love handles and I hate how since having the kids my tummy does this weird pooch thing and this cellulite juts won’t go away.” It becomes very demoralizing for a man to compliment his wife when it leads to her putting herself down–in those cases, the husband can almost feel like he’s part of the problem.

            As well, Mike’s right–often when a guy is complimenting his wife’s body it comes off as “You’re so sexy–I want you” and it often leads to him getting rejected or again, the whole “Haha, funny, but I could lose 15 pounds” talk. Both people need to learn to just accept compliments but also learn to compliment without trying to get anything out of it sometimes! Just tell your wife she looks sexy–without then asking for sex sometimes. 🙂

            I’m not saying that’s what happened in this case, but just trying to give a bit of perspective to Mike’s response. 🙂

  4. Shauna Parker | Confessions Of A Baptist

    Sweating the small stuff used to be a big issue for me. At least until I met my husband. Before anything a man did would just irritate me. I think it had a lot to do with my childhood and things I was holding onto.

    Once I learned to forgive and let go I met my husband and things just seem so different. Of – course we have our disagreements but we don’t sweat the small stuff. We always say sorry and move on. Oh! and thank you! Thank you is a must in our home. It is very important to grateful even for the little things! Great post I enjoyed it.


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