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. It’s the grease that smooth’s 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 crying on your best friend’s shoulder after a tragedy or snuggling in companionable silence with your spouse in front of the fire, intimacy is when we feel connected.
How we 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 and as mysterious as the way the ground lurches when we see a picture of someone we have loved and lost.
John Gottman, one of my favorite researchers, has distilled the creating 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. Gottman calls these bids, as in “bids for attention.” We could also call them overtures, as in opening movements.
In happy relationships, whether between spouses, parents and children, friends, or coworkers, bids are made and responded to warmly. 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 trust level so that we are more likely to reach out to that person again, and the content of the bids deepens.
If we begin with “What a beautiful morning!” And receive an enthusiastic agreement, we may go further and ask our spouse for help in solving a problem that’s bothering us. If, on the other hand, our comment is ignored, or greeted with sarcasm, we are unlikely to make ourselves vulnerable in any way, and the relationship loses a chance to deepen.
The same process is enacted with our children in hundreds of daily interactions. If we ask our middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, we might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous. If, on the other hand, our comment is ignored, or her response is surly, most of us will back off.
So how can you create a more intimate family?
1. Start by paying attention to the “bids” that go on. What is the tone in your family? Responsive and warm? Distracted and ignoring? Hostile and sarcastic? Does anyone get ignored? Does anyone usually ignore others?
2. Focus on responding positively to your family’s bids to you. It takes real self-discipline to tear yourself away from the newspaper to answer a child’s question, but how you respond to her overture is crucial in building closeness. More important than what you initiate with her later, when you try to get her to tell you about what happened at school today.
3. If you don’t get the response you want to your overtures to your kids, step back and watch how you initiate. Are you inviting a positive response?
4. If you make an overture and are greeted with something hurtful — disdain, sarcasm, or blankness — try not to respond with anger. Instead, show your vulnerability and hurt. Say “Ouch!” and turn away (before you give in to the temptation to lash out.) Your son or daughter (or spouse!) will almost certainly feel badly about having hurt you, especially since you haven’t aroused their ire by attacking back. Later, when you aren’t 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.
Intimacy is a dance. It deepens or is eroded by every interaction we have. The good news is that every interaction you have is a chance to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your loved ones.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.