Whenever I speak on the importance of father involvement, conduct a training institute on one of our programs, or conduct a capacity-building workshop, I make it a point to drive home the fact that the most important relationship in a child's life is the one between the child's parents. It's the blueprint that a child uses as a model for his or her own relationships.
That's why improving the father-mother relationship is a vital part of our fathering programs, and why we provide programs and resources for moms, such as Understanding Dad™, that help mothers improve that relationship for the sake of their children. It's also why I scan the research for insights into how NFI can help you, if you're a dad or mom, or your organization to help individuals and couples understand the importance of this relationship and help them improve it.
The husband and wife team of John and Julie Gottman brings together two of the country's leading experts on what makes relationships successful. Together they run The Gottman Institute and have researched for four decades what makes relationships between couples work. One of their recent, fascinating discoveries is the influence that "bids" between couples have on their chances of success (i.e. a happy, long lasting relationship). (For more on this research, read this article in the Wall Street Journal from which I drew to write this post.)
A bid involves one half of a couple making an attempt to connect with the other half -- not unlike when a government agency or company issues a bid for work in an attempt to connect with a vendor to perform that work. In the case of couples, a bid can involve asking a partner a question, making an affectionate gesture toward a partner (e.g. attempting a hug or kiss), or simply making a statement. Regardless of the action, the partner who makes the bid hopes the other partner will respond, ideally in a positive, supportive manner.
The "bidee" (my word, not the Gottmans') can respond in one of two basic ways. The bidee can turn toward the "bidder" (again, my word) and respond with interest or turn away (i.e. not acknowledge/ignore the bid or respond in a hostile manner). Depending on the nature of the bid, either reaction might seem minor in the broad scheme of a relationship, especially when bids are examined in isolation. But because relationships involve frequent bids -- sometimes several times a day -- how couples handle them can provide a hint about the health of relationships. In other words, they reflect patterns of communication in relationships, good or bad. If, for example, a husband typically doesn't acknowledge bids from his wife, that pattern of communication is harmful. Why? Because when the wife makes a bid, she's doing so because she thinks it's important, which is why she expects a positive, supportive response.
John has found that he can predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple will stay together based on how they respond to bids. He and Julie studied the interactions between married couples and followed up with them six years later. The couples who were no longer married only responded positively to bids (turn-toward bids) 33% of the time. Couples who were still married responded positively to bids 87% of the time. Although these couples were married, John says he can predict the success of relationships, based on bid reactions, whether a couple is married or not.
Herein lie the two traits of generosity and kindness that mark successful relationships. How someone responds to bids exists on a continuum with generosity and kindness on one end and contempt, criticism, and hostility on the other. This continuum applies not only to bids but also to the ways in which partners generally interact with one another. Successful relationships involve partners (or one of the partners) who constantly look for ways to support each other -- a kind of proactive generosity and kindness. They go out of their way to find ways to support their partner in minor and major ways. Unsuccessful couples involve partners (or one of the partners) who constantly look for what's wrong with the other partner that they can point out and criticize and who generally react to the other partner's statements and actions with contempt or outright hostility.
I'm convinced that these two traits lead to success in any relationship whether a couple is romantically involved or not. (Every relationship, personal or professional, involves bids.) We receive a lot of emails, calls, and responses to our blog posts from divorced parents struggling with the relationship with their ex-spouses. These relationships are often at the contempt, criticism, and hostility end of the spectrum, to the detriment of these parents and their children. These traits also apply to the relationships between parents and their children. We see a lot of dads who, as they enter our fathering programs, treat their own children with contempt, criticism, or hostility. Those reactions are a cancer that destroys everyone it touches.
If you're a dad, mom, or practitioner who works with dads, moms, or couples, heed this insight. Seek ways to move yourself or those you work with toward the generosity and kindness end of the continuum. While doing so might not be easy, everyone will be the better for it.
What's the level of generosity and kindness in your relationships? Are some toward one end of the continuum while others are at the other end?
What's the level of generosity and kindness in the relationships between the dads and moms you work with and between the dads and their children?