Dr. John Gottman has discovered many surprising things about relationships over the past four decades, sharing these findings with us in his books, lectures, conferences, and workshops. Central to his work in creating Gottman Couples Therapy, along with his wife Dr. Julie Gottman, was the discovery of “sliding door moments.” It is during these moments, when one partner bids for the other’s attention, that relationships are made or broken.

During the everyday moments we share (or try to share!) with our partner, from “I love you” to “Did you see that crazy jerk cut in front of me?,” we expect or hope for a return – a hug or a kiss, shared laughter, or simple acknowledgment. Sliding door moments are an opportunity to connect, and failing to notice and take advantage of them is a sure path to the slow-but-steady destruction of your relationship.

When our partners do not respond and turn away from or against our bids for emotional connection, we begin to lose trust in them. Though Dr. Gottman explains that the reasons for failed connection are often the result of mindlessness, not malice, they add up (or take away) from a relationship over time, creating complex and all-encompassing systems of Positive or Negative Sentiment Override. Dr. Gottman discusses his trust metric in this short clip:

So, what does all this mean for our relationships in the Digital Age? The gadgets that we use to communicate with one another (cell phones, Skype, Facebook, etc.) are conduits for sending and receiving bids for emotional connection. They are the purveyors of sliding door moments. They dispense opportunities for connection, despite dragging us into a world of disconnection. If you fail to respond to a text message, even if its unintentional, your partner may feel that you have turned away from their bid for emotional connection. 

The conclusion? We must do our best to stay close in a virtual dimension that trivializes the tone of the written word. We must pay as much attention to contact with our partner online as we do in real life, because let’s face is, online is real life! Below, we give you a short list of tips for improving your ability to connect with your partner in cyberspace – we have chosen tips that we feel are the most important to implement without delay:

  • Talk About Texting: Have a discussion about sending and receiving text messages. If it is important that your partner respond to your texts in a timely manner, let them know. What does it mean to you to send a text and not receive a response? To some this is a sensitive topic, and for others it is not an issue. The important thing: understanding each other’s needs and respecting them. 
  • Acknowledge Acceptance: If you are busy when you receive a message, do your best to turn towards your partner and let them know that you will respond as soon as you are free. This can be as simple as, “Busy. Will respond ASAP. XOXO” The word choice is less important than the acknowledgment of receiving the message, the promise to follow up, and its fulfillment in the follow-through! If you know you will not have access to your phone and will be unavailable for a while, let your partner know. 
  • Pick Up The Phone: When making plans, discussing logistics, or arranging a meeting with your partner via text message, it is best to pick up the phone and make a call. Not only will taking the extra effort mean a lot to your partner, but it will also help you to avoid confusion. 
  • Communicate Care: The seemingly inconsequential nature of messaging makes it difficult to feel connected, all the more reason to be especially attentive. Without the aid of tone of voice and body language, even the most sincere messages can be misconstrued. 
  • Know When to Stop: Don’t sling words back and forth without thinking. This can lead to confusion, and confusion in virtual communication is, as we have discussed, not ideal. If you feel a conversation escalating over text message or online chat, table it until you can speak in person. Be sure to follow up. 

This set of suggestions is intentionally brief, as we will be going into more depth on the subject in this blog series. We have shared them today as the first Weekend Homework Assignment to give you a chance to reflect upon and consider these ideas. 

Take some time this weekend to think about the way in which you and your partner have handled virtual communication in the past, whether it be via text message, Facebook chat, Skype, or another medium. Think about situations in which you wish things had been handled differently. What would you have changed? How can you use this list of suggestions to approach future interactions in a healthy way? As always, we invite you to join the discussion on our Facebook page. 

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Weekend Homework Assignment
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.