Friendship: the foundation of any lasting relationship

A relationship that has the qualities of friendship strongly established will withstand conflict and strife more effectively. It will reduce stress and tension in the dyad as well as within each individual, and create the conditions for humour, play, respect, and closeness. Let Vagdevi Meunier guide you on how to develop these qualities

Man and woman holding hands enjoying in the paddy field

"Let your best be for your friend. In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed".
—Kahlil Gibran

A husband and wife are fighting. She calls him an idiot; he calls her stupid. An observer might call this the marital war zone. What makes this metaphor appropriate in this situation is that the two parties fighting are acting like adversaries or enemies, each trying to defeat and crush the opponent. When the argument ends, neither one feels closer to the other. In fact, the argument is more likely to end with an act of defiance—like one of them leaving the house—an act that signals abandonment and rejection rather than respect and consideration. What makes two lovers and soulmates so toxic to each other?

We leave this scene and go inside another home where a father is trying to discipline his teenage daughter. His voice is raised, his eyes are fiery, and he is shaking a finger in her direction in a threatening manner. The daughter is sitting on the couch with a sullen, defiant look on her face. If you stopped the father and asked him what he feels towards his daughter, he would tell you he loves her and only wants the best for her. But a casual observer would not see love or care in his behaviour. They might notice instead that the father is trying to assert his authority over his daughter [and failing] and trying to put fear in her heart so she will not repeat whatever mistake she has just made. The atmosphere is tense, angry, and clearly unfriendly.

Rajiv and Ranjit are senior programmers at an IT company. Similar in build, hairstyle, and appearance, they are often mistaken for brothers at company meetings. But the vibe between them is far from friendly. They frequently argue fiercely for their ideas and try to gain the upper hand during team meetings. They share a team manager who has often tried to get them to sit down and smooth out their tension but all her efforts have been in vain. Their nickname in the office is The Two R’s, which some whisper behind their back, stands for the Rebel and the Rowdy. The team manager is desperate for a solution because both these young men are highly intelligent and are assets to her team. What could she do to turn this around?

The same dynamic is being played out in board rooms and living rooms, between co-workers or friends, between sisters and brothers, boss and employee, as we saw between the parent-child dyad or the spousal system, where conflict overtakes the goodwill in the relationship. During such tense arguments, the emotional hallmark of the conflict is the sense that one is fighting an enemy or opponent, and that trust, care, and respect have left the scene.

You may also like: Wholesome Friendship

According to world-renowned relationship researcher and author, Dr. John Gottman, there is a secret ingredient that can turn things around—friendship. Dr. Gottman, in his best-selling book The Relationship Cure, explains the five components of friendship that can strengthen any relationship between lovers, family, friends, and co-workers. He found that any relationship that has the qualities of friendship strongly established will withstand conflict and strife more effectively. It will reduce stress and tension in the dyad as well as within each individual, and create the conditions for humour, play, respect, and closeness. In lovers and spouses, friendship will act as the fertiliser for the healthy growth of romance, passion, and intimacy. In fact, research shows that having close positive friendships may help us live happier and longer lives.

Any relationship that has the qualities of friendship strongly established will withstand conflict and strife more effectively

In this article, we will focus primarily on the first of Dr. Gottman’s five-step programme for establishing a strong foundation of friendship in any relationship: analysing the way you bid and respond to other’s bids, developing your emotional communication skills, and finding shared meaning with others.

First, let us take a look at why friendship is a good basis for all relationships. The word friendship may sound odd when talking about the relationship between a parent and child or between a husband and wife. Isn’t that a different kind of relationship compared to that between co-workers or social friends? Agreed, says Dr. Gottman, but the qualities of friendship that we want to cultivate in all relationships have similar foundations even if they are expressed differently within the context of a particular relationship. With over 40 years of systematic scientific research on what makes relationships function at a high level of satisfaction and stability, Dr. Gottman has discovered certain critical elements of emotional communication that help build and preserve a basis in friendship across all relationship types whether it is a romantic or intimate relationship, a professional relationship, a sibling relationship, or a parent-child relationship.

So what is friendship?

A friendship implies a voluntary, mutual social exchange between two people. We play many roles in our lives—child, parent, spouse, sibling, employee... Each role comes with some obligations and expectations. But if we base our relationships only on role obligations, life would be pretty unfulfilling. For example, an employee is expected to show respect to his boss and courtesy and politeness at work. This employee’s work life will feel so much more fulfilling and energising if he wants to show respect and courtesy at work because his boss has made an effort to build a relationship with him, and he gets along well with his colleagues. The fact that he chooses to show respect because they have earned it makes the relationships feel like friendship because it becomes a voluntary social exchange. Similarly, a child who wants to please her parents, or a husband who wants to make his wife happy are going to enjoy the relationship even during times of stress.

Mutuality is another important quality in friendship. A relationship that nurtures both people includes give as well as take. Even in a parent-child relationship, the parent takes care of the child’s physical and emotional needs and the child nurtures the parent by showing love and respect. In marriage, intimacy and commitment grows deeper when there is voluntary and mutual exchange.

Father son enjoying football
A relationship that nurtures both people includes give as well as take

Finally, a healthy friendship is based on comfort and honesty. We want to share our thoughts, fears, and hopes with a friend because we know we will be accepted for who we are rather than be judged for it. We look forward to talking to friends because the more we share experiences and conversations, the more comfort grows between us. Along with a growing comfort, we begin to feel more safe as time goes on, sharing deeper and perhaps more painful experiences or memories. Comfort nurtures honesty. Honesty feeds loyalty and trust. In this positive nurturing cycle, a friendship relationship becomes a safe harbour that accepts as well as inspires us to become our best selves. John Gottman describes the great relational paradox this way: “People are more likely to change and grow when they feel accepted and liked for who they already are. In most cultures, friendship is the most basic social relationship in which this growth and change happens through the voluntary exchange of care, comfort, trust, and acceptance.”

As we are beginning to see, what we want from friends overlaps with what we want from other relationships in our lives. The foundation of friendship provides the scaffolding, which enables us to cope with just about any stress, challenge, or adversity that life has to offer.

If we agree that a basis of friendship is the key to all happy relationships, how do we learn to establish and preserve this basis? This is where Dr. Gottman provides us with an easy to understand roadmap that we can follow in all our relationships. Let’s look at the three steps from his programme that anyone can learn and begin to use starting today.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
Helen Keller

Step 1: Build the emotional bank account

The first step is to understand the concept of an emotional bank account. Dr. Gottman and his research team studied hundreds of couples by observing them over long periods of time as they spent time together in an apartment laboratory at the University of Washington, in Seattle, WA. They would ask couples to discuss a difficult topic or give them a joint task to do, but sometimes the couple would be asked to spend time in the lab doing whatever they do at home such as watching television, listening to music, playing a game, or reading a book.

In the beginning, there were hundreds of hours of videotape of these ‘mundane’ moments where it seemed like nothing was going on. They were surprised to find that couples who were in very satisfying happy relationships were not really using this downtime to engage in deep meaningful conversations. In fact, most of the conversations might seem superficial to the observer because they might be about the weather, the news, or seemingly trivial events in their lives. A husband might say to the wife, “Hey, what came out of that conversation you had with your sister last week? Is she still planning to buy a new car?” The wife would respond with some details about her conversation with her sister. There seemed to be nothing earth-shattering or emotional in this exchange. Then Gottman wondered if perhaps it was not the depth of the conversation but the frequency with which they engaged each other and the manner in which they responded to each other that made the difference.

With the help of his research assistant, Janice Driver, they went back and poured through the hundreds of hours of videotape that had been left on the cutting room floor. That’s when they made a startling discovery that became one of the major findings of the research. They discovered that some couples were not just hanging out in the apartment laboratory like two individuals. They were finding ways to engage each other and build connection and closeness through repeated small and large behaviours throughout the day. From this observation they coined the term the ‘bid’ and the ‘turn’.

Wife sitting away from her husband not in a good mood
A relatively small difference in the frequency of bids and turns can have a large impact on the relationship

A bid is any gesture, word, expression, or unit of behaviour that invites another person to engage with them. Some bids can be simple looks or facial expressions, others can be elaborate requests for conversation or closeness. A turn is the response the other person gives to the bid from the first. If the bid was a look, let’s say, raised eyebrows, the turn might be a smile or a wink. If the bid was a statement such as “when would you like to retire?”, the turn might be a more involved conversation from the partner about their career, health, or dreams for when they are older.

In contrast to previous research that showed that intimacy was built up through deep verbal sharing, Gottman found that this bid + turn formula was the fundamental unit of intimacy in a relationship. The frequency and type of bids and turns becomes the basis of the friendship in the relationship and can impact almost every other aspect of the relationship such as safety, comfort, honesty, conflict, trust, and loyalty.

Bids could be positive [inviting or gentle] or harsh and negative [demanding]. From his research on siblings as well as children’s relationships, Gottman found that even a tantrum or a scolding can be a bid for attention. It is a way of saying, “Please show me that I matter to you”. Just like bids can be positive or negative, there are three kinds of turns:

Turning toward is when the partner or recipient of the bid responds in a way that engages the bidder and furthers the relationship.

Turning away is when the responder neglects or ignores the bid or does something distracting or irrelevant as if to show that the bid did not exist.

Turning against is when the responder responds negatively to a bid in such a way that it communicates annoyance, disrespect, or an attempt to defeat the bid.

In a happy relationship, there are frequent bids followed by turning towards responses that become like deposits in the emotional bank account between the two partners. In unhappy relationships, frequent experiences of turning away or turning against bids creates a bank account that is running on empty or overdrawn. Then, when stress or conflict arises in the relationship, there is no goodwill [money in the bank] to draw from. The research showed that a relatively small difference in the frequency of bids and turns could have a large impact on the relationship. So partners in happy relationships turned towards each other as much as 100 times in 10 minutes, while partners in unhappy relationships turned towards each other 65 times in the same time period. Remember it was not just how many times they did it but also the kind of responses that made a difference. So if the unhappy partners had even a few negative bids or negative responses [such as turning away and turning against], their relationship suffered significantly.

So what does this finding mean for you? The first lesson to explore is how bids and turns take place in your relationships. Are you more often the bidder or the responder? When you bid, are your bids positive or negative, direct or subtle, or enthusiastic or sullen? What kinds of responses do you usually get to your bids and what does that tell you about the person you are in a relationship with?

Sometimes we spend a lot of time and energy sending out bids that are not responded to positively or even at all. Gottman found that unrequited bidders were the most lonely people in relationships. Another thing to explore is your style of responding to bids—are you positive, do you turn towards people when they bid for your attention, or do you get caught up in your own zone and fail to even notice that your wife or child or colleague is sending multiple bids your way? Or do you lead a stress-filled, anxious life and most of the time your responses are irritable or reactive? Whatever your style of responding, knowing more about your emotional communication style through the bid-and-turn system will help you become more conscious and therefore more in charge of your relationships.

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Step 2: Learn the skills of emotional communication

Now that we know how bids and turns help build the emotional bank account in a relationship, let’s look at all the ways one can make deposits in this bank account on a daily basis and also the “bid-busters” or the kinds of things that can get in the way. Here is a simple rule to remember: When sharing the same time and space with someone, pay attention to the way you bid as well as the way you respond to bids. In order to do this, you need mindfulness.

I was driving my teenage daughter to school one day and as usual she was being chatty and conversational during the ride. I like the fact that my daughter shares things with me and I don’t want her to stop. But sometimes in a long car ride, I can only hear so much about who said what or did what to whom before I begin to tune out. So that morning I was pre-occupied with driving and even though I was saying “uh-huh” at regular intervals, my mind had wandered off to other mental landscapes. At a traffic light, I became aware that my daughter had stopped talking and was looking at me with an annoyed look on her face. I said, “What’s the matter?” She replied, “You have not been listening to me at all, have you? What was the last thing I was talking about?” I had to admit I could not remember what she was talking about because I had indeed stopped listening. She snorted when she heard my confession and then sat in sullen silence for the rest of the ride. I realised that I had turned away from her repeated bids and she was no longer interested in engaging with me.

Now, to be realistic, most of the time when we turn away from bids from our loved ones, it is not mean-spirited or malicious. We tend to simply get caught up in our own mental zone or become preoccupied. Not being attentive once or twice doesn’t harm the relationship as much as a repeated pattern of turning away. When we become more mindful of the ways we respond to bids, we not only become more conscious of our choices and therefore more likely to pick good ones but we also become more available to repair a slip as soon as it happens. And that is what I had to do with my daughter, repair with her for not listening and make an effort to stay mindful and attentive much more in the future. I am happy to report that my daughter still talks to me in the car and I treasure those moments when I learn so much about what she is like in relationships and what her thoughts and feelings are about the world. I get a small glimpse into what my daughter is going to be like as a grown woman during those moments and I would not trade them for all the gold in the world.

Mindfulness and an interest and willingness to get to know people we share this life with help create meaning in our lives. Ross Parke encourages us to become “collectors of emotional moments” because the rich tapestry of our autobiographical memories are woven from the strings that connect these emotional memories to each other. As another famous researcher and author Daniel Siegel found in his research on the developing brain, the single most reliable predictor of the mental health of a child comes from the child’s parent being able to articulate a coherent autobiography of their lives.

» Bid-busters

We have already looked at the first and most common of the bid-busters or the behaviours that prevent us from making emotional connections in our relationships. That is the quality of being mindless. When we live our lives on autopilot, we miss many opportunities to build emotional connections and make positive memories in all our relationships.

Boss pointing to his assistant
Avoid a harsh start-up—it is detrimental to the health of your relationship

The second most common bid-buster is what Gottman calls the “harsh start-up”. He found that the first three minutes of an interpersonal exchange determines with a high degree of predictability how the rest of the conversation will go and if repeated often, how the relationship will go in the future. A harsh start-up is when we make a bid but do it in a way that criticises or accuses the other person instead of being inviting. Here are some examples:

  • A boss walks up to the employee’s cubicle and says, “Am I ever going to see that report I asked you for two days ago?”
  • A parent says to a child, “Did you spill your juice again? I can never give you something to drink without having to clean up after you every time.”
  • A wife says to her husband, “How come you never cook me dinner?”
  • A brother calls his sister and says, “What is the matter with you? Have you forgotten my phone number that I don’t get a call from you for weeks?”

In each of these examples, the person starting the conversation probably has a positive goal in mind—they want something from the other person even if it is just an apology or acknowledgement. But the chances that they will get a positive response is reduced to almost zero because of how they opened the exchange.

» Other bid-busters include

  • Criticism. When we place the problem inside the body of the other person instead of seeing it as a problem that exists between two people. For example, instead of the husband admonishing his wife for dirty dishes piling up and calling her a poor housekeep, if he said, “I don’t like seeing dirty dishes in the sink, will you please wash them before dinner?” his wife will not only be more likely to want to please him, she won’t take it as personally.
  • Flooding. Our brains and bodies are hard-wired to protect us from danger. When we are engaged in a conflict discussion, the body can experience conflict and anger in the same way it would experience the threat of war. The best thing to do when our bodies are flooded is to take a calming break for at least 20 minutes before resuming the discussion.
  • Pessimism and cynicism. Some of us are prone to look around and constantly find what is not going well. For example, a parent who is constantly correcting her son instead of giving him positive feedback even when he does something right is going to raise a child who only cares about doing just enough to avoid punishment. The lesson to learn here is to try to become more balanced so that positives and happiness are practised and remembered as much as things that don’t go well.
  • Avoiding conversations. Often two people who are fighting are not likely to be talking about what is really going on inside of them. For example, a friend always comes late to every outing. Instead of sharing my true feelings about this, I might begin to treat the friend with an edge or degree of coolness whenever this happens, hoping he will pick up the hint. But he is not going to. He is more likely to experience my coldness as rejecting and annoying and react to that with his own sarcastic remarks or digs, which will only push my buttons and make me angry. Sooner or later, we will be having an argument about our friendship and may even find ourselves ending it. If I had the courage to confide in him that his coming late makes me feel unimportant and embarrassed, even if he doesn’t like it, he is more likely to respond with his own vulnerable feelings about what happens to him when he is late.

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
Henry David Thoreau

Step 3: Building shared meaning

Man and woman facing opposite direction
Often two people who are fighting are not likely to be talking about what is really going on inside of them

If you are wondering how it can be enough to just know about bids and turns, make deposits, and avoid bid-busters to create close lasting relationships, you would be right. Those are just the basic building blocks of friendship. In order to use these building blocks to create intimacy, closeness, and a solid foundation to the relationship, we have to know something about how to use them in relationships. Armed with the knowledge of what it takes to have a positive emotional bank, let’s look at some ways you can use bids and turns to get high impact results.

Remember this: Enthusiastic or high-energy bids and turning towards builds momentum in a relationship towards more connection, closeness, intimacy, safety, and trust.

Let’s look at what high energy and enthusiastic means. Most of the time, as we go about our daily lives and interact with our spouses, children, colleagues, family members, or friends, we are usually engaged in mundane tasks at the same time. So most of our interactions tend to revolve around routines, chores, activities, or informal chit-chat. For example, parents interact with children around tasks such as eating dinner, taking a bath, changing clothes, waking up, doing school work and the like. So most of their conversations are likely to be about these rather boring topics as well. A parent says, “Eat your peas”. The child says, “I don’t want to. The peas are touching the meat”. The parent replies, “You cannot leave the table until your plate is empty”. The conversation usually ends there. As a researcher, we would call these low-level bids and turns. The parent is attentive and the child is interacting but both of them are not really building more closeness or trust through these interactions. The parent is communicating rules around eating and the child is trying to resist and later giving in.

What if the parent wanted to have a closer connection to their child and their conversation around peas was an opportunity to build that closeness? What would that look like? Here is an example:

Parent: “Honey, eat your peas.

Child: I don’t want to, the peas are touching the meat.

Parent: That’s an interesting response. What does that mean to you?

Child: Now the peas have meat juice on them and Kavita says that meat juice has parasites in it.

Parent: Ah, I see. How did Kavita come to learn this, I wonder?

Child: We are studying microbes and bacteria in our biology class and Kavita said she talked to her dad who is a doctor and he told her that.”

You can see how this second conversation is like opening a door into the mind and heart of the child. The parent can still make the same rule as before, which is that the child has to eat all her dinner. But before we get to the rule, there is a more meaningful conversation taking place. The parent now has the ability to share his own thoughts about parasites with his child and perhaps allay the child’s fears and worries.

You will notice that high energy doesn’t mean high intensity. The conversation becomes high energy because it increases the interest and engagement of both people and produces a bonding experience that makes both people feel closer to each other at the end of it. The high energy in this conversation was encouraged because the parent asked a simple open-ended question that invited the child to share her thoughts and feelings.

“When friendships are real, they are not glass threads or frost work, but the solidest things we can know.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Enthusiastic turning towards is similar in that it is a response to a bid that lets the bidder know he or she is very important and worth all your attention. A colleague stops at your office and asks you what you plan to do for lunch. You could offer a low level response such as, “I brought my own lunch today and I have too much to do so I will be eating at my desk.” A high energy or enthusiastic response uses this moment to build mutual interest and friendship. Here the responder might say, “I brought my lunch because I have so much to do but I sure wish I was eating lunch with you. What are you thinking about doing for lunch?” By confiding in your colleague that you wish you were eating with him, you send the message that his invitation is welcome and he is more likely to ask again. Or it might give him permission to encourage you to take a short break and go outside on a beautiful day and you are likely to feel special that he wants to spend time with you. Either way, the two of you will walk away from that exchange with a smile on your faces.

Enthusiastic turning towards invites sharing and spontaneity. It gives and receives positive energy between the sender and the receiver and it often implies that each person is worth the attention. When enthusiastic turning towards happens within families such as between spouses, parents and children, or siblings, it can lead to greater positive outcomes. A spouse who stops what he is doing to pay attention to his wife’s bid and encourage a deeper conversation builds intimacy and romance. A parent who takes the time to really listen and engage in dialogue with a child about their mutual experiences builds trust and loyalty. It does not have to happen at every bid or even every day. But when these exchanges happen on a regular basis, it turns our lives from feeling like a series of chores and tasks to a rich tapestry studded with gems of precious moments of caring and love and woven with threads of happiness, joy, and affection shared between two people.

A parent who takes the time to really listen and engage in dialogue with a child about their mutual experiences builds trust

Positive sentiment override

A positive emotional bank account has a dramatic impact on all aspects of a relationship. The emotional bank account functions like a bridge between the foundation of a relationship to the everyday challenges and difficulties that are inevitable in life.

When the emotional bank account is running on empty or has been overdrawn, the weather of the relationship turns stormy, cloudy, and gloomy. People begin to dread seeing the other person, they begin to avoid talking about any deep topics in order to avoid conflict, and they begin to use unhealthy strategies for dealing with any difficulties that arise such as avoidance, anger, or blame. Conflicts increase in frequency, intensity, and damage and the two people in the relationship find it harder each time to repair and reset the goodwill in the relationship. Over time, the fabric of the relationship begins to tear apart and both people drift away from each other.

When the emotional bank account is running on positive, the weather of the relationship becomes sunny, warm, inviting, and fun. People begin to experience the relationship as a safe harbour where they can be themselves, they enjoy each other’s company more, and they become more inspired and creative within themselves. If there are disagreements or conflicts, the positive bank account makes the conflict feel less threatening. In fact, Gottman found that a positive weather [which he called The Positive Perspective] reduces the frequency, intensity, and the damage caused by conflicts and increases the chances that conflicts will be repaired and that both people will show caring and a sense of humour even when things are challenging.

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Putting it all together

Let’s put it all together by looking at the stories I shared at the very beginning to see how a solid friendship might change the way the relationship progressed.

The husband and wife fighting would find that their argument does not escalate and become as negative as it was in the beginning. Both spouses would make an effort to respond gently to each other and to avoid criticising or blaming the other for the problems. Neither one of them would even think about using words like idiot or stupid to each other because they would not judge each other harshly. Even if the argument became heated, one or both of them would agree to take a break to calm down and then come back later to resolve the differences and repair the relationship.

The father who was admonishing his daughter would use his friendship base with his daughter to first have a gentle and open-ended conversation with her about her life and her choices. He might learn during this conversation that she misbehaved not because she did not respect him but because she really wanted to fit into her peer group and do something that would make them like her even though she knew it would make her father upset with her. He might really empathise with her dilemma and then disclose his own dilemma to her about wanting to protect her and yet teach her how to make her own mature choices. The daughter would also respect her father’s perspective and listen to him and agree that his perspective is valuable for her to learn from. If this conversation goes well, they would both walk away feeling like they got to say what they wanted, they heard each other, and now have a mutual agreement about how the daughter will handle this situation in the future.

And what about our colleagues, the Two R’s, Rajiv and Ranjit? If their team leader recognised the value of friendship as the key to strong relationships, she might begin by building a sound friendship with each of them so that they trust and respect her opinion. By modelling how to build an emotional bank account, she would teach them to respond to each other positively and with more enthusiasm and mutuality. In fact, she might inspire all of her employees to begin to treat each other as unique and special and make time to connect with each other during the work day so that the entire office community begins to feel like a homey, comfortable, and fun atmosphere in which to work. Within this positive environment, Rajiv and Ranjit would gradually begin to be less competitive with each other and more interested in learning about each other. They would begin to recognise the similarities in their level of talent and creativity and begin to inspire and encourage each other to excel on the team. With the support of their team leader, they might also begin to build a friendship with each other that extended beyond the work day so that they develop a closer understanding of each other’s personalities, dreams, and worries.

When people begin to care for and about each other, they also begin to share and support each other through hard times. Within the rich nourishment of a community of caring, people will also begin to show the best in themselves and feel inspired to become the best they can be. When we feel confident in our abilities as a unique special person who is valuable to others, we begin to rise above ourselves and give more to our communities, our families, and to the world.

Friendship is such a simple word that carries within it a world of possibilities. Friendship is the kernel of emotional connection that helps us become more empathetic, compassionate, and caring human beings. Barbara Fredrickson, the positive psychology researcher and author of Positivity and Love 2.0, suggests that through positive relationships we begin to feel love and that Love gives us “a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.”


A version of this article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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