Long-term relationships often create a certain sense of familiarity between two people. However, if the partners in this relationship have lost the feeling of closeness, romance, or sexual attraction, this sense of familiarity can turn negative. It can resemble a relationship of siblings or roommates rather than romantic partners.
Overriding Negative Sentiment
In this type of „sibling relationship,“ partners experience interactions that feel competitive, challenging, and unproductive. They can feel reactive, judgmental, and frustrated in their communication with each other. In Gottman research, repeated experiences of negative encounters contribute to an environment characterized by Negative Sentiment Override (NSO).
Think of NSO as the weather of a relationship. When a positive sentiment predominates, the relationship feels warm and inviting, encouraging connection and safety. We are more understanding of our partner’s mistakes and feel compassion for them, helping us forgive their faults. In NSO, the environment feels like stormy weather, with darkness and impending doom. Couples are more likely to perceive intentions and judgment in their communication, paying particular attention to insults and jabs. They are more prone to blame and accuse their partner, having less compassion or forgiveness, leading to harsh reactions towards each other.
A common way for couples to enter NSO is through daily or short-term experiences of feeling rejected or reacted to harshly when one person tries to get the other’s attention. A bid is any verbal or nonverbal gesture with which you ask your partner for support, affection, or attention. The Gottman study showed that partners in satisfying relationships turned towards each other in 86% of cases. In relationships heading towards dissolution, partners turned towards each other in only 33% of cases. This dramatic difference illustrates the impact bids have on the atmosphere within a relationship. It’s the little things we do every day with and for our partners that have the greatest impact on the quality of a relationship and how we perceive our partner.
How We Respond to Bids
How we respond to our partner’s bids is not only meaningful in the moment; it can have long-term consequences. In relationships characterized by frequent bids and turning towards each other, 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 resist the bid from their partner, they experience a lack of security, closeness, romance, and sex. Repeated experiences of turning away create feelings of loneliness, separation, and isolation. Partners in such relationships stop striving for a connection, turn away from each other even in positive moments, start living parallel lives, and may eventually divorce.
The Damage of this Cycle
The repeated experience of our partner turning away from our bids has an even more damaging impact. Short-term, the partner whose bid was rejected might become silent and offer less frequently. Externally, the partners may appear to be in a tense stalemate, avoiding causing conflicts. But internally, something significant is changing. We tend to experience turning away as rejection. Over time, this leads to inner feelings of anxiety or hostility, as well as resentment and judgment. Partners start silently „destroying“ their partners in their thoughts, rather than appreciating them, or assume their partners to be selfish, rude, disrespectful, or a myriad of other labels, which is rarely useful or productive in a relationship.
Why Resisting Your Partner’s Bids is so Damaging
The internal dialogue about devaluing our partners may not be noticeable in our behavior, and the relationship may seem stable while a simmering volcano brews underneath. When a conflict erupts, and it inevitably will, even a small trigger can release pent-up resentment, hostility, and judgment, fueling an explosion of anger and contempt. Partners may be shocked and dismayed by the intensity of the hostility directed at them and may not realize that the frequent moments of rejection have evolved into anger and resentment. Couples with this pattern also find that their arguments become more frequent, last longer, and are harder to repair or recover from.
It is crucial how we respond in our daily interactions with our partners. We may not be aware of how we transfer our frustration or stress onto our partners by resisting their bids. However, by developing a conscious awareness and choosing to be kind, respectful, and receptive to our partner’s bids, the relationship can improve. This change is crucial not only for the health of our relationships but also for our individual health and well-being.