Fact Checked

Written by Peter Haywood

We are in the month of love! And as such, we are reminded that we need to make overt gestures to the ones we love, desperately hoping this will cover us for the rest of the year….

However, there is no need for hearts, balloons and ponies. Studies conducted by the influential therapist, John Gottman, focused not on the big gestures – the chocolates and the flowers, but the small behaviours that we do day-to-day. From watching couples for just 15 mins, Gottman and his team were able to explain with 90% accuracy whether that relationship would lead to a divorce. They focused on ‘bids of attention’.

For example, if someone is heading to the kitchen and asks if you would like a coffee, there are three options:

  1. A towards bid “Yes, thank you, I would love a caramel macchiato!”
  2. An acknowledge bid but with a negative response “You know I only drink organic Darjeeling oolong octahedral tea infusions, of course I don’t want a ‘coffee’!” and
  3. Silence, where the bid is ignored

Gottman found that the couples with a higher ratio of positive bids had a greater chance of staying together. The researchers estimated a  5:1 ratio of positive to negative bids for a ‘healthy’ romantic relationship. Others have suggested a slightly smaller ratio of 3:1 for work-based relationships (although it is difficult to pin down a specific number) – so no need to get panicky about another office coffee run. However, showering your partner with compliments, or positive bids, can be taken too far. Gottman discovered that a ratio of about 13:1 positive to negative bids will deliver a muted effect – so there is also something in keeping it relatively mean, to keep them relatively keen.


Instead of a last minute dash to Cards Galore, have a think about your communication within your relationship. Put down that gigantic teddy and bunch of flowers and tune into your interactions. Is your partner giggling at their phone? Ask them what hilarious meme they were just laughing at. Give a small backrub, a hug or a comment on how nice they are looking today – it is the small interactions that build our relationships. Start paying attention to the ‘bids’ in your day and head for the right ratio.

Comedian Rob Fee’s take on relationships:

Relationships are just two people constantly asking each other where they want to go eat, until one of them dies.

— Rob Fee (@robfee) April 14, 2015

Beyond romantic relationships, how about your work colleagues? A back rub might be really rather inappropriate but do you know how Alice likes her tea? Or did you notice Dave’s new haircut? What was the response when you asked?  How would you rate the ratio of positive to negative bids from you and your colleagues? Write that in a romantic feedback card to the team. That would start a conversation better than any team building day.

So why is this important for stress at work? A big part of wellbeing is linked to our relationships. Having social support is a buffer against stressful events. This does not have to be your romantic partner, social support can come from anywhere, your friends, family, even your boss. How we manage and maintain these relationships is critical.  Relationships can easily go from being a supportive ‘resource’ to a negative ‘demand’. Stress is the result of an imbalance of these ‘demands’ and ‘resources’ so it is important that we nurture the resources we have in order to stay healthier and happier.

So here is what you can do today;

  1. Start paying attention to the ‘bids’ in your day,
  2. Head for a higher ratio of positive than negative bids,
  3. View your relationships as a personal resource, an important part of beating stress at work.


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage clinic: a scientifically based marital therapy. New York;  London. W. W. Norton.

Gottman, J. M. and N. Silver (1999). The Seven principles for making marriage work. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gottman, J. M and R. W. Levenson (1992). ‘Marital processes Predictive Of Later Dissolution – Behaviour, Physiology, and health.’ Journal of Personality And Social Psychology 63(2):221-233.

Gottman heads a non-profit research institute (The Relationship Research Institute) and a for-profit therapist training entity (The Gottman Institute).