Holidays · Motherhood · Relationships

Creating Safe Spaces for Intimacy


I recently read an article about the research of Dr. John Gottman who studies relationships. The article explains:

Throughout the day, the [newlyweds] would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
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Gottman says that couples who have happy marriages, “turn towards” their partner 90% of the time, that is, they show some sort of interest in what their partner is saying and they take that opportunity to connect. If partners don’t react and ignore the bid for connection, or worse, if they respond negatively, the relationship will most likely fail, due to the partners not meeting the emotional bids of one another. If the partners learn that their bids for connection will be rarely met, the relationship will likely deteriorate into one of hostility and distrust.

In my own marriage, I think my husband and I meet one another’s emotional bids well but I’ve been thinking about the article in regards to my children. How many times does the six-year-old prattle off about something while I am half listening but probably more focused on accomplishing everything on my to-do list? Or how often does my eight-year-old want to share her latest Minecraft structure with me, but I give it a cursory glance rather than take the time to look deeply and really notice the details? I can think of times when my toddler has climbed into my lap but I’ve been more concerned with just typing out one more paragraph than I am with taking the moment to connect with her.

Most of us know the very familiar story of The Fall in the book of Genesis. One of the results of sin was that Adam and Eve’s perceptions of God changed. God had not changed; He still walked through the garden like a gentle breeze. Adam and Eve changed, though, and now they had an inordinate fear of God. Being ashamed of themselves, they didn’t believe they could trust God to see their flaws, their brokenness.  So they hid.

As my children’s mother, as one of the two people who will perhaps most influence my children and their perceptions of God, I feel it is perhaps my foremost duty to gain my children’s trust. If they learn that I am trustworthy, that all their feelings and even the ways in which they are broken are safe with me, hopefully they will more easily be able to trust God. When Satan was trying to tempt Eve, he asked, “Did God really say you may not eat from any of the trees in the garden?” First, the question is an exaggeration, because it was only one tree they could not eat from, and secondly, just the phrasing of the question, “Did God really say that?” makes it seem that God’s request is somehow unreasonable. Then he tells her that if she eats it she won’t die, that God lied to her. So the question really isn’t whether she will obey or disobey; it is really whether if God can be trusted. Could God be keeping things from her? Is God power-hungry and just wants to keep her little? If God can be trusted, she will not eat, secure that the God who gave her everything she has wants what is best for her. If God cannot be trusted, she must take things into her own hands and try to grasp at what she thinks she lacks.

The other night I read the story of The Fall to my children as part of our Jesse tree Advent traditions. I made sure to point out this verse:

Then the Lord God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil! Now, what if he also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever? The Lord God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. (Gen 2:22-23)

Did God take them out of the garden to punish them, I ask. They say no, but they don’t know why. I explain that since the people sinned, suffering entered the world. If they ate from the tree of life they would live forever. God did not want them to live forever in this world where we experience pain and suffering. So he barred them from the garden. So now we live a little while here, but then if we live rightly we will go to heaven and then live forever where there is no suffering. God was protecting them. I want them to know that.

I want them to know God can be trusted and so I try to help my children trust me. I want them to know that I am not in opposition to them. My toddler is in her “terrible twos” now. She can make unreasonable demands. She has big emotions that she doesn’t always know how to control or how to explain in words what she wants. Maybe she wants her drink in a particular cup. I try to put her drink in it. Though I used to worry that this would “spoil” a child, I now think that it is teaching my child that I care about her feelings. I’m on her side. If she cries for no apparent reason, I’m getting better at sitting next to her on the floor and rubbing her back. If I’m sad about something, I want those around me to treat me with compassion. I want to know that how I feel is important to others. So I try to treat my children how I would like to be treated. “I’m sorry you are feeling sad,” I say, looking into her eyes. Even if I can’t figure out what is bothering her, I want her to know that I’m trying to, because she matters to me.

In those moments and others I’ve now been trying to “turn toward” my children, to take opportunities to connect with them, to teach them that what they think and how they feel are important to me, especially in this Advent season when we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. Emmanuel means “God-with-us” and so I try to truly be “with” my children, to be fully present so that they may learn that their thoughts are safe with me, and hopefully be a clearer reflection of God, who is always attentive and always present with us.

In this season that is very hectic for so many, may we try to be with others. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether the mashed potatoes turned out perfectly or whether our homes looked like a showroom or not, but whether those around us felt seen, felt heard, and felt important to us.



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