Turn Toward Your Child to Nurture Intimacy

TURN TOWARD YOUR CHILD TO NURTURE INTIMACY

Laura Markham

Intimacy is the glue that holds families together. It’s what connects us over the years and across the miles. It’s what gets us through the hard times, and what makes the good times even better. It’s the grease that smooths the rough interactions of everyday life, and the honey that makes it all worth it.

Intimacy is hard to define, but we all know when we’re feeling it. Whether it’s snuggling in the silence of companionship with your partner or crying on your best friend’s shoulder, intimacy is when we feel connected.

How humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they fray is both as simple as a warm smile, yet also as mysterious and unsettling as the way the ground lurches when we see a picture of someone we have loved and lost.

The Gottman Institute has distilled the creation of intimate relationships down to their practical essence. It turns out that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. These are “bids,” as in “bids for attention.” We could also call them overtures, as in the opening movements of an opera, which relies on harmony to succeed.

How bids for attention work

In happy relationships, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, friends, or coworkers, bids are made and responded to in a positive, even if small, way. It almost doesn’t matter what the bid is about; the process of reaching out and receiving a response builds the relationship. It also increases the level of trust so that we are more likely to reach out to that person again, and the content of the bids deepens.

If someone begins a conversation with “I’m worried about my job” and receives an empathetic response, they’re likely to elaborate and maybe ask their partner for support. Their trust in reaching out is rewarded with caring. They both end the interaction feeling closer.

If, on the other hand, their comment is ignored, or greeted with anything that doesn’t feel empathetic, they’re unlikely to make themselves vulnerable, and the relationship loses a chance to deepen. In fact, they’re hurt, so a little wall gets built, and they may be less likely to make bids like that in the future.

Our relationship with our child is built on how we respond to their bids

The same process is enacted with our children in hundreds of daily interactions. If you ask your middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, you might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous to take the conversation to a deeper level. If, on the other hand, her response is surly, you might back off.

And, of course, children often test us by saying something negative to see if we’ll empathize. If we respond to their bids with understanding, even though they’re expressing negativity, they’ll trust that we can handle their authentic feelings, and they’ll open up more.

But if we ignore, deny their feelings, correct them or judge, they’ll shut down. If this interaction is repeated often, kids get in the habit of holding their feelings inside. Not only do they not reach out to us, but they more frequently reject our bids to connect with them.

How to use bids to nurture intimacy with your child

1. Notice your child’s bids to you.

The inconvenient thing about a bid from your child is that they initiate whenever they want to, and you can count on being busy doing something else. It takes real self-discipline to tear yourself away from your screen to answer a child’s question, but how you respond to their overture is crucial in building closeness. If you don’t give them your full attention, you’ll have not really responded, or worse, turned away from their bid.

Later, when you try to get your child to tell you about what happened at school today, that’s your bid, and by then, they’ve shut down because you didn’t respond to their initial bid. To support yourself in being more present and available, make it a practice to turn off your screens when you’re with your child.

2. Train yourself to respond with empathy, no matter what the comment is.

If your daughter climbs into the car after school and greets you with a negative comment like “Dad, you know I hate that music, can’t we listen to my music?” or “Mom, I had a terrible day and it’s all your fault because you…” that’s a setup for an argument. But it’s also a bid; she’s asking if you’ll commiserate with her, if you care about what matters to her, if you’ll listen to her problems so she can process her feelings, and if you’ll help her make things better.

You’re only human, so naturally, you feel like snapping at her. But if you can take a deep breath and respond with empathy, you’ll find you can turn the entire situation around. So you might say:

“Really, you don’t like the Rolling Stones? Okay, I’ll turn this off and we can talk while we drive about what music to play so we can find something we both like.”

Or:

“Wow, you sound like you had a really terrible day! Tell me about it.”

Later, of course, you can ask if she really thinks her terrible day was all your fault. She’ll almost certainly apologize, and you can tell her that you understand, that it’s okay. In the meantime, instead of a fight, you’ve deepened your relationship.

3. If you don’t get the response you want when you reach out, step back and watch how you initiate.

Are you inviting a positive response? Are you asking them to tell you more about how they feel, or what they’re going through? If what you want is connection, don’t start with correction. Always connect before you correct. Remember The Gottman Institute’s advice for couples: understanding must precede advice. Trying to understand your child’s feelings is trying to connect, and advice and problem-solving can come later.

4. If you make an overture and are greeted with something hurtful — disdain, sarcasm, or a blank stare — try not to respond with anger. Instead, show your vulnerability and hurt.

Let them know how you feel hurt, and turn away before you give in to the temptation to lash out. Your child (or partner!) will likely feel bad about having hurt you, especially since you haven’t escalated drama by attacking back.

Later, when you aren’t feeling hurt and angry, you can tell them how it made you feel to get that response. Try to talk only about your feelings, not about them being wrong, and invite them to share any resentments that were driving their hurtful response to you. Like this:

“Sweetheart, when you said I always take your brother’s side, I felt hurt because I try to hard to be fair, and your voice sounded so angry. But it sounds like you really think I’m being unfair. That must hurt you. Tell me more about why you feel that way.” 

5. Make time for intimate interactions in your schedule.

Often, we go whole days or even weeks just moving our kids through their schedules, without taking time to really connect. And most parents can’t imagine where they would find more time to connect.

Try to look for opportunities for intimacy that are already in your schedule, where you can slow down and create an opportunity for closeness. Maybe that’s when you help your daughter with her hair in the morning, and make sure to give her a hug and kiss, or when you’re in the car with your son in the afternoon listening to music you both like, or at bedtime when you lie with your child for ten minutes.

Intimacy is a dance. It deepens or fades through every interaction we have. The good news? Every interaction you have is a chance to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your loved ones. Just paying attention for a week to how you respond when your children reach out to you can shift the whole tone in your family in a positive, harmonious direction full of meaningful overtures and caring responses.

What Does Trust and Commitment Look Like in a Relationship?

WHAT DOES TRUST AND COMMITMENT LOOK LIKE IN A RELATIONSHIP?

Mary Beth George

With bellies miserably full of Thai beef and noodles, he washed the dishes and I dried. “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran was playing in the background.

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks

“We’ll start our low carb diet tomorrow. This time for real,” I said with conviction to my husband, Sean.

He nodded in agreement. He’s heard it before. But he knows my weaknesses after 25 years together, noodles being at the top of the list. I overeat and then complain.

Instead of judging me, he grabbed a bottle of wine and some dark chocolate (this man really knows me) and sat down at the table to continue our quiet, stay-at-home Valentine’s Day celebration.

“So, who wants to go first?” he asked.

Earlier in the day, I told him I wanted to have the first date from John and Julie Gottman’s new book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Each date is focused on a topic crucial to a healthy relationship.

“I do!” I said, not giving him a chance to respond.

Date One is “Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment.” Conversation topics include: What does trust and commitment look like in our relationship? How can we make each other feel safe? What are our agreements about trust and commitment?

After reading that chapter earlier in the day, I followed the directions in the book and compiled a list of things I cherish about Sean. While there were many things on my list, there were ten that stood out. I envisioned sharing in David Letterman Top 10 List fashion.

Trust, Cherishing, and Commitment

When we cherish our partner, we feel that they’re irreplaceable. We simply cannot imagine our lives without them, even when times are rough. We find ways to tell them that we appreciate them, and do that often. This builds trust in the relationship.

Cherishing and commitment go together, but they’re different. Commitment is really a verb because it is the actions we take daily to let our partner know we are with them, and that we make decisions with them in mind.  

When we choose commitment, we resist temptation to betray our partner. We create trust and safety by turning towards them to work out our differences. Gratitude is nurtured by knowing what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. There is no gossiping or trashing of our partner to others.  

Commitment in Action

Sean and I have had our share of difficult times, that’s for sure. When our son was a colicky infant we leaned on each other for support despite being sleep deprived and cranky with one another. When my mother and beloved dog both died in the same year, I had a hard time shaking off my depression. We argued more than ever and found ourselves in couples counseling. Despite these and other challenges, we never gave up on one another.

The thing that sealed the deal for me was when I had a major health crisis 12 years ago. My mysterious illness had my doctors stumped and I was terrified. Our lives were turned upside down for months on end with scary symptoms and no treatment. My life and my outlook were forever changed. It wasn’t until I got a diagnosis and learned to manage my chronic symptoms that I could reflect on how it changed us as a couple.

I had been too absorbed in my own fear to recognize how scared my husband was, too. His life was also forever changed. But instead of complaining, he expressed cherishing and commitment by supporting me through my illness in ways that I took for granted at the time.

He rubbed my back when I was scared. He drove me to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night on countless occasions. When I had to change my diet, he joined me. He developed a patience with me that had not been there before. He was less quick to anger over small stuff and he started leaving love notes for me.

While he never came out and said it, almost losing me made him realize how much I meant to him. I felt loved and cared for. We now joke that my near-death experience is the secret to our healthy marriage.

Thinking Out Loud

As I compiled my Top 10 List for our date, I realized I was describing our everyday life. I wrote down things like playing and laughing together, and that we get each other’s sense of humor.

I wrote down raising a child and dogs together, a connection that is precious to us but was often fraught with stress, cleaning up bodily functions and money we could have spent in far more fun ways.

I wrote down being comfortable to be myself with Sean and having my faults and bad habits accepted. And that includes binge eating noodles, knowing full well I will complain about it afterwards.  

The song was still playing as I started reading my list to him.

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

Yes, I believe we have found love right where we are. And I could hardly wait to tell him.

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