4 Ways to Improve Any Relationship

Discover how fear gets in the way—and what you can do about it.

At a recent holiday party, I ponied up to the bar with two new acquaintances. Both single, both weary from it.

“I’m a lazy dater!” one chuckled gleefully, realizing she had landed on the perfect way to explain her relationship status.

“Me too,” the other agreed, with a reluctant sigh.

Now married, I get it. I’ve been there, too. After a breakneck week of work, myriad responsibilities, and limited free time, it can feel far more satisfying to stay in and Netflix the hell out of Hallmark holiday movies rather than shellac yourself and go out yet again, hopeful, only to be on a middling-to-terrible date.

But that short-term comfort can lead to a paralyzing place in the long run: In fear.

I’d argue that fear is the main reason we railroad our truest desires—preventing us from speaking first, accepting a date, reaching out, being open emotionally, or setting healthy boundaries. And while this applies to lovers, it also does to everyone else in your life, too: Friends, siblings, children, and co-workers.

Fear can really do a number on our need for connection, especially when we make hundreds-to-thousands of “bids” for it every day—whether we realize it or not—according to Dr. John Gottman. The noted relationship guru (you can call yourself that when you’ve penned more than 40 books on the subject) has spent his life conducting research and writing on how to better our relationships. In his 2001 book The Relationship Cure, Gottman writes a compelling narrative about the impact of bidding. “That basic idea has to do with the way people, in mundane moments in everyday life, make attempts at emotional communication, and how others around them respond, or fail to respond, to these attempts,” he says.

Fast forward 16 years and, thanks to technology, it’s even easier to flee from and fail in bidding attempts, making Gottman’s theories all the more salient. If you’re ready to check fear at the door and do things differently, start with these four tips:

Ask. Listen. Repeat.

Have you ever noticed that however banal office banter is, it can still create nice camaraderie? Same for relationships. In studying videos of successful and unsuccessful interactions, Gottman posits: “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.” The point: You can always talk about you. Try finding out something about the other person for a change, and don’t be a pill about it.

Avoid Starting on a Negative

Oh, the push-pull of this one. You want to connect with someone, but instead of being vulnerable you just dive bomb the hell out of it. Think: Texting, “I haven’t heard from you in awhile!” instead of “I’ve been thinking about you. Want to get together?” This is what Gottman calls the “harsh startup,” which is a bid for connection that begins in a negative, blaming or critical way. Basically, it’s a guarantee for non-success, leaving both parties royally miffed because person A isn’t getting the attention they want, and person B is on the defensive before a conversation even begins.

Keep It Consistent

To have a great relationship, you have to show up—literally and figuratively. Let’s face it: Quickly dashed emails of “Let’s get together!” week after week will only get you so far. The solution? Sticking to a routine, or “rituals,” as Gottman calls it. “A ritual of emotional connection provides structure in your life to ensure that bids for connection happen on a regular basis,” he writes. Think of it as gym time for the soul, whether it’s a weekly lunch with your favorite co-worker or a monthly night out with your spouse.

Know Where You Come From

An accent isn’t the only marker of your history. How you relate to others—and your expectations of them—can often be traced back to childhood experiences. For example, imagine growing up in a family that never said, “I love you,” to each other, only to find yourself dating someone who’s family said those three words every single day. Very different worlds. “Your emotional heritage has a strong impact on your ability to connect emotionally,” Gottman writes. “It affects your awareness of your own emotions, how you express them, and how you bid for connection. It also colors your ability to see, interpret, and respond to other people’s bids.” A harsher but helpful way to think about it: Know and own your personal baggage so that you can side-step self-sabotage.




Mandy Major is a writer and editor who recently traded New York City’s skyscrapers for the Connecticut shoreline. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesEvery Day with Rachael Ray, and Prevention, among other publications. A reading advocate and board member for her local library, she is working on her first collection of short stories.



Illustration Credit: Marie Guillard


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