Turning Towards

Bird on a tree branch

Smart phones or not-so-smart phones?

There’s no doubt about it, smartphones are changing our world. People carry them everywhere and check them constantly. Emails and texts and Facebook and Twitter and the list goes on. People often comment on seeing a group of teens sitting at a table together, all of them looking down at their phones and texting without any interaction with each other.

It’s not just teens who do this. Couples often come into therapy complaining that their partner spends all their time playing with their phone and not talking anymore. It’s an easy habit to fall into.

John Gottman’s research into couples discovered an interesting interaction pattern. Couples relate in a cycle which he called “Bids and turning toward (or turning away).” It goes like this. A couple is out for a walk, he sees a bird in a tree and says “Cool looking bird.” This is a bid for connection. It’s a small one to be sure, but it’s a bid for his partner to get involved. He could have looked at the bird and said nothing, but by saying it aloud, he was asking for a response. His partner has a choice at this point. She can respond, “Yeah, cool bird.” That’s turning toward. It might not seem like a big deal but thousands of these experiences add up, making the relationship better. On the other hand she could just keep walking as if her partner hadn’t spoken. That’s called “Turning away,” or she could respond with irritation, “I hate birds!” We call that “Turning against.”

When people turn towards their phones instead of their partners it feels like turning away. It makes us feel unimportant to our partner. It seems like they’re not interested in us. When it happens too often we begin to feel like they don’t care about us anymore. In the research the successful couples turned toward each other over 85% of the time while the unsuccessful ones only 33%. The difference in the quality of the relationship becomes huge over time when we connect in these small ways.

It’s probably a good idea to put the phone down when we’re with our partners. Maybe it would be a good idea to declare certain times as “no phone zones.” Think about going beyond that to planning times to intentionally turn towards each other. Make meal times opportunities for conversation about everybody’s day. Spend part of your evening debriefing the stresses of the day. Spend some time at night talking about things you’re both thankful for, and maybe have a prayer together. It truly is amazing how these little moments of turning toward each other can enhance your relationship.

Dr. Don




Tampa Bay Christian Counseling Center




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