What comes to mind when you think about celebration in your relationships? Birthdays? Anniversaries? Major milestones where we dress up, go out for dinner and expect a present.
But what about all those little moments worth celebrating nonetheless, like when your partner shares a joke with you after a not so pleasant conversation as a way to make up. Or puts out the garbage without being asked, or keeps the volume down on the TV because you’ve had a long day, or checks in on you because you’ve been gone so long trying to put the baby to sleep…
We rarely celebrate these moments. Often we don’t even notice them; life is just so busy and it’s one thing after the other. Who has time to pay attention to the little things, especially in intimate relationships where the novelty factor wears off pretty soon and we begin to take things for granted.
There is also the biological tendency, for survival reasons, to pay far greater attention to negative events. And when we’re so busy looking out for what something said or did that upset us in some way, we miss all the little chances we get of building the container of trust that would make us more secure in our relationships. A vicious cycle.
And then there are the expectations we may have. We do, after all, live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded by other people’s photoshopped lives and by Hollywood style ideals against which the regular people in our lives don’t stand a chance! And so we can shrug off the little acts as “big deal” or wish a partner, child, friend or boss had done more than they did. Instead of celebrating, we end up sulking or criticizing, and let numerous opportunities for connection and trust-building turn into termites that eat away the fabric of our relationships.
John Gottman, who has done 40+ years of research on intimate relationships, has found that trust is built in small moments when partners make “bids for connection” on each other. Bids can be anywhere from sulking or moping to get attention or empathy all the way to cooking someone their favorite meal to surprise them.
The reality is that we’re usually far more responsive to negative bids because it’s difficult to ignore or not be moved by people’s pain or suffering. And all those positive bids, ripe for trust-building, fall away like water droplets on a rain jacket.
Think about it in your own life. How many times do you turn to your partner when they ask you about your day? Do you shrug and say something vague before going back to whatever you were doing? Or do you smile back and reply “Thanks for asking honey, it was actually quite good because…” and start a conversation? That is called celebration.
How actively do you respond when they share their good news with you? Research on Active Constructive Responding shows that people who show their excitement for someone’s good news, who want to know more, and eagerly explore possible positive outcomes, have far deeper relationships because they are bound together by shared positive emotions. That again is called celebration.
There are also moments to celebrate from the past. Like talking about earlier times in your relationship. Yes, the tough times that you pulled through by supporting each other or reviving the trust. But also the silly times, the fun times and the corny things you did in the ignorance or hubris of youth. There is nothing too trivial or too small to build the fabric of relationships.
So get good at noticing—it’s not that hard.
Get good at appreciating, and this may take some work.
And get good at celebrating. It may feel uncomfortable at first, because we get used to being a certain way in our relationships, and breaking out of the mold takes practice. But the rewards are certainly worth it!
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