Hi all. Nate here. Recently, I stumbled across an article in The Atlantic: "The Secret to Love is just Kindness." As a human being who is a fan of both love and kindness, and as someone who is slowly trying to express more of both in everyday life, I was intrigued.
It's a great article that follows a pair of researchers who looked at different married couples and, after observation, sorted them into two categories: the "masters" and the "disasters." The terms are basically self-explanatory, but in general, the "masters" still had vibrant, connected marriages after a six-year period, while the marriages of the "disasters" had basically fallen apart (if not in actuality - with divorce - at least in practice).
So, why am I writing about this on a blog for an improv company? Well, support is obviously a huge part of both improv and relationships. But what really struck me was this portion of the article:
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
This is the section that fascinated me. You see, in my improv training at Theatre 99, my teacher Greg Tavares (buy his book everyone) called lines in an improv scene "offers." As an improviser, every line you say, every action you take, everything you do in an improv scene is an offer to your scene partner. Truly great improv happens when offers are accepted and explored in an improv scene without judgment; when scene partners are truly interested in the others' offers and "yes, and" them to build something together.
As I'm sure many of you have connected - the words "offer" and "bid" aren't really all that far apart. From the perspective of an improviser, what's happening in these relationships is that one side makes an "offer" - "Oh, honey look at that beautiful bird outside!" - and the other side must respond. When the researchers talk about "turning toward," in improv parlance we would call that "Yes, and." "Yes that is beautiful, and I think you should go outside and try to get a picture!" "Yes, that is beautiful, and thank you for sharing that with me!"
The "masters," maybe without even knowing it, are using improvisational concepts to bring kindness and support to their relationships. Contrast this with the "disasters" who "turn away," which is essentially committing the cardinal sin of improvisation - denial.
Humans are sensitive creatures - and social creatures. There is a deep desire inside of all of us to be accepted, to be heard, to be seen, and to be considered important - especially by those around us and even more especially by our romantic partner(s). Many times relationships don't break down because of one singular event, but because of a slow building of small interactions that leave one side or the other feeling unsupported and unheard.
People always say, "Marriages take work." And it's absolutely true. Some of the hardest work you can undertake is to be kind and to be interested, especially during the course of a life with kids, full-time jobs, outside stresses, et cetera. It's easy to fall into a pattern of self-focus. I would challenge all of us in life - as I challenge students in improv classes - to take a "yes-and" attitude to our conversations, especially with our partners, and to treat their "offers" - or "bids" - for what they are: cries for connection and kindness in a world that doesn't always offer enough of either. (And by the way - this is an approach you can take with any relationship, not just romantic ones! Friends, siblings, parents, kids...)
Now that I've said that, let me shamelessly plug our improv classes, which will be sure to improve your marriage!*