What is the emotional bank account in a relationship?
This analogy, first introduced by Stephen R Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, indicates the amount of trust and goodwill you share with another person. It works on the assumption that building your relationship is like building wealth — more positive interactions help the relationship grow and thrive, while negative interactions hinder it.
Renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph. D., found what he calls the “magic ratio” — it takes five positive interactions to counteract negativity. This ratio supports the idea of emotional bank accounts: when you have more money to draw on, you’ll be better able to weather storms and handle surprises and tough times, just as you would with a cash bank account. Kimberly, a certified couples therapist from the Gottman Panganiban Institute, explains LMFT.
This is not to say that successful couples will never have struggles that bring down their emotional bank account balances – all couples argue and have hurdles to work through. The key to successful lasting relationships is making sure you make more than you withdraw so when you have disagreements and arguments there is a foundation of support and trust to help you deal with conflicts.
So how do you keep your emotional bank account in the green?
Doing kind, loving, and considerate things for your partner consistently builds the relationship and strengthens it over time, says Panganiban and clinical psychologist Satira Streeter Corbett, who is also a certified therapist from the Gottman Institute. Incorporate Deposits into Your Day Just like making regular cash deposits into your bank account, turn these efforts into habits so that they remain consistent even when life gets in your way.
“[Rituals of connection] Ways to connect, care about your partner, and be there for them every day. Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT, is a certified couples therapist from the Gottman Institute
Deposits are any gesture that makes your partner feel safe, loved, and respected. According to Panganiban and Dr. Corbitt, the specifics of this will vary based on your partner’s likes, preferences, and desires—the options for positive interactions that deposit into your emotional bank account in your relationship are endless and shouldn’t be time-consuming at all. They can include any act of intimacy, or what Panganiban calls “contact rituals,” which are “ways of connecting, caring for your partner, and being with them on a daily basis,” she says.
For example, this could look like kissing your partner on the way out the door or helping them unload groceries from their car, making coffee or tea for your partner so they’ll be ready for them when they wake up, or making their favorite meal. Perhaps your partner likes to watch TV in the evenings, so it can be depositing in the queue of his favorite program and watching it with them before going to bed – the specific actions depend on the person. It also sounds like giving compliments, spending quality time together, giving gifts, communicating respectfully — anything that builds the relationship in a positive way.
While this is specifically about incorporating small gestures into your day, it also includes things like date nights—but the key here is that these aren’t Just The times you contact your partner. “It’s about spending time together and making sure that we offer praise and appreciation, that we show some kind of affection so that these little things can build up so that we work out of a relationship that we intended to devote time and more to,” says Dr. Corbett.
Do some deposits have a higher value than others?
Not really, say Dr. Corbett and Panganiban—the key here is consistency, rather than extravagance and grand gestures. “Knowing your partner and what feels meaningful and important to them helps you do the things that increase their impact on your money, so to speak,” says Panganiban. One measure that’s always a good thing across the board, she adds, is to listen to your partner and be emotionally available when they’re stressed or overwhelmed.
On the other hand, withdrawals are gestures that annoy your partner and make their day more difficult. For example, maybe you are grumpy in the morning and mess with your partner, or you forget to do an important task that they now have to do on their own. These are all the petty annoyances and grievances that doom a relationship and build resentment. Keep in mind, though, that major hurts, like abuse or infidelity, don’t count as withdrawals, Dr. Corbett says, because “these are in another world entirely — we’re here talking about the things we all do sometimes because we’re human, like that.” Troubled days or forget a memory inadvertently,” she says.
So how can one build more positive interactions into their routine?
By making consistent efforts. In fact, Dr. Corbett advises the couples she treats in her therapy practice to create a “state of union” each week to reflect on what their week has been like, “how their partner flowed into them and how their partner’s vision is.” Using Dr. Gottman’s 5:1 ratio, says Dr. Corbett She encourages couples to share five positive, appreciative actions that happened over the course of the week that were not welcome and can be an opportunity for growth.
“You’re giving these five positives so it’s clear to your partner that you’re still looking for and focused on the good, but you’re also saying there’s one thing we can continue to work on,” says Dr. Corbett. For example, a positive could be that your partner made your favorite meal one night, while a negative could be that they left a mess for you to clean up. Continuously communicating these needs keeps everyone on the same page and helps turn positives into habits so they don’t stop happening, even when you’re busy.
So if you want to build a solid relationship with your partner, start thinking about that other bank account you have — and make sure it’s thriving by planning nice gestures that show you care, even if it’s little things.
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