This post draws heavily from the research and writing of John Gottman, specifically in his book What Makes Love Last. His book has been incredibly helpful to me and I’d highly recommend it, both to those in romantic relationships, but also to single people.
Life is full of “sliding door moments.” These moments come and go, so many in any given day that we can’t always count them and definitely don’t always notice them. But these are the moments that build, maintain, or allow to crumble the foundation of a healthy relationship. John Gottman coined the phrase “sliding door moments” during his research on relationships over the last several decades. These are interactions between two people that allow an opportunity to connect and foster intimacy if properly received and responded to.
Sliding door moments can be small (ie a smile from across the room, or a quick reach for your hand) or big (ie I need you; I’m hurting; I feel alone). Sliding door moments are bids for connection. When these bids are met in a positive way, trust is fortified. But these moments are also short and fleeting. If you don’t step through the door and respond positively to the bid for connection, the door will close and the moment will pass. Whether your relationship is brand new or you’ve been together for twenty years, these sometimes tiny little moments are the things that allow your relationship to grow stronger or to crumble.
Most relationships don’t collapse in a moment or because of one big fight or bad decision. Relationships fall apart because one or both partners no longer trust each other. When your significant other responds to your bid for connection in a way that makes you feel seen, known and cared for, they fortify your trust in them. When I hug my husband when he gets home and he hugs me back and tells me he loves me, he’s not just telling me he loves me. He’s saying, “I see you. I’m with you right now. I care for you.” He’s helping me continue to trust that he’ll be there for me and that I can trust him for the long run.
On the other hand, when my husband asks me to sit next to him on the couch while he works (or possibly just surfs online), he’s making a bid for connection but it’s a little more understated. He wants to know if I’m going to show up for him. If I’m going to be present and prioritize him even in the little things. If I do, it helps him believe that I’ll show up for the big things too. But if I miss his bid for connection and instead think he just doesn’t care about all the other things I want to get done, then I skip the opportunity to build up his trust in me and connect more deeply with him.
Now, I don’t mean to say that in the back of all of our minds we’re constantly manipulating and testing people to see if they’ll fail us. I think more of us do that then we’d care to realize. But what I’m getting at is the subtleties of our connections with those we love. We don’t even always realize the significance of the little bids we’re making unless we don’t get the response we want. If I tell my husband that I can’t sit with him because I have homework to do, a kitchen to clean, and a workout to get done, he’s likely to feel alone and a little rejected. Those negative feelings often help us realize that we were asking for more than just a warm body on the couch next to us. We were asking for connection, for friendship, or to be reminded that we’re not alone in the world.
I’m a really task oriented person. For example, when we bought our house, I literally moved in and unpacked in less than 24 hours (with a lot of heavy-lifting help from family and friends). I love the feeling of checking things off my list. Over the last four and a half years of being married to Patrick, I’ve come to realize how often I selfishly prioritize my own preferences over the needs of others. I’m not proud of how long it has taken me to learn to say, “Yes, I’ll sit and do nothing with you even though I have a to-do list calling my name.” I’m not proud of how many times I have silently told my husband that he can’t count on me to be there for him.
Understanding and giving language to the concept of the sliding door moment has been game-changing for me. It has helped me put into words and a new perspective, the importance of the little moments in relationships. Honestly, I have found this to be one of the most empowering skills to develop in my marriage and in my friendships. Seeing the value and influence of positive sliding door moments reminds me that today I can do something to make my marriage stronger, to help my husband feel known and loved. Today I can continue the bricklaying work of establishing a solid structure that will serve us for decades if we’re lucky.
If you’re married, I hope this helps you see your spouse better. It takes time and effort to begin to see your partner’s bids for connection, but it’s worth it. The way I reach out to Patrick is often so different than the way he reaches out to me. It takes practice to see these moments before they slip away. I hope that having language for this experience helps you learn to look a little harder, pause a second longer, and really see your spouse and their needs.
If you’re single, I hope this helps you love your friends and family better. I hope that this helps you to develop a strong self-awareness and a caring eye for others who are trying to connect. I hope that you see how this applies just as much to platonic friendships as it does to marriages. I also want to encourage you to see the value in cultivating these relational skills now, equipping you to be a loving and trustworthy spouse someday if that is part of your story.
Everyday people all around us are aching for love and connection. Every day our friends, children, parents, spouses, co-workers, and neighbors are reaching out in big and small ways to connect and to find trustworthy people to walk with them in life. As Christians, our model is Jesus. Jesus showed us boots on the ground, arms stretched out, on our level love. He made it a point to show up and eat with people, to stop and play with the children, and to touch the leper who was cast out from his community. Jesus showed up and responded to people’s bids for connections and in that way, he changed the story. Now, we’re not Jesus, but if you know Jesus and the love He shared, then I’m confident that will influence the way that you show up for people. When we show up, let’s remember to remind our people of the One who will always love them more deeply than we can and let’s love them well in the meantime.