An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphorical representation of the emotional connection between you and your partner. Just as you deposit money into a savings account to secure your financial future, you make deposits into people emotionally for the health and longevity of your relationship. Positive deposits include acts of love, trust, understanding, and support, while withdrawals involve hurtful words, unresolved misunderstandings, and conflicts. Renowned relationship experts, Drs. John, and Julie Gottman, popularized this concept to help couples better understand how to build and maintain strong and positive connections between them.
What is an Emotional Bank Account?
In February 1998, a team led by Dr. John Gottman published research about predicting marital happiness and stability by following up with newlywed couples six years into their marriage. They discovered that, in controlled settings, happily married couples responded positively 86% of the time to their partner’s emotional overtures. In contrast, couples who had divorced or were in unhappy partnerships only did so approximately 33% of the time. A key distinction between the two groups was in how they handled their Emotional Bank Accounts.
When the account was in the black, partners were more inclined to grant each other the benefit of the doubt during conflicts, and they maintained a positive perspective on their relationship. Couples with accounts in the red tended to doubt each other’s intentions and experienced disconnection and loneliness. The research concluded that maintaining a healthy and thriving relationship takes effort, commitment, and a willingness to make positive emotional contributions to the partnership. Like a financial bank account, relationships will thrive when individuals invest in it.
The 5:1 Ratio
The ratio, 5:1 is a simple metric to track your emotional bank account. It takes five positive interactions with your partner to counteract a negative one. In this context, actions that signify turning towards your partner, no matter how small, are positive interactions. Conversely, those that make you turn away are negative ones. Here are three ways to keep your Emotional Bank Account in the black.
Balance the Deficits:
As a survival mechanism, the prehistoric brain that evolved in humans hardwired itself to rapidly escape danger by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This reaction exists even today and we experience it as “Stress“, or “Anxiety” during moments of strife. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) counters the powerful effects of the SNS to calm your body back down to ease. However, it has comparatively longer neural pathways to travel and the effects kick in slowly. During times of conflict, individuals experience a surplus of negativity. The 5:1 ratio emphasizes how numerous your positive interactions must be to neutralize the impact of negative emotions and keep your Emotional Bank Account in balance.
Prioritize Positive Interactions:
Arguments can happen in any relationship. But you can make a difference in the outcome by practising positivity, particularly during those times. This does not mean you give in and overly accommodate your partner every time you argue. Anger can be reactive and destructive. However, turning it into assertive anger will help you turn towards your partner respectfully. Take control of the emotion by pausing and reflecting before you speak. By lending an empathetic ear, encouraging your partner to share their perspective and validating their opinion, you demonstrate compassion. Apologizing for mistakes, forgiving your partner for theirs, honouring your word and being reliable are ways to build trust, which is the cornerstone of a solid relationship. Prioritizing positive interactions, and consciously paying attention to them during disagreements can help minimize the losses to your Emotional Bank Account.
Practicing Everyday Positivity:
As a rule, incorporate positive interactions in your relationship often. As these deposits add up, they will help buffer your relationship during rocky times when you make withdrawals. Increasing the positivity ratio to 20:1 can help build resiliency in the Emotional Bank Account. It works the same way as a financial savings account for your rainy-day fund. Your positive “deposits” do not have to be grand or extravagant. Small, meaningful, and heartfelt gestures will give you more mileage as long as you are consistent. One of the most helpful things couples can do for themselves is to carve out time to be with each other, free from distractions like the phone or TV. Examples include a date night once a month or a relaxing walk in the neighbourhood. Recognize the importance of such moments as a means to deepen your emotional connection.
Showing non-sexual affection with cuddles, hugs, and kisses fosters emotional intimacy, and can convey love, warmth, and closeness. You can accomplish the same by recognizing your partner’s efforts and contributions, and by expressing gratitude and appreciation. Look for reasons to compliment them regularly and celebrate successes, no matter how small. Show unison by supporting and encouraging each other’s goals and dreams. Recognizing the significance of these small positive gestures, and not taking them for granted, can make a profound difference in relationships.
Time to Seek Professional Help
If your Emotional Bank Account isn’t thriving, you can begin with small steps, such as recognizing your partner’s attempts to build closeness. Continuously lean into these moments, one after another. With each bid, your interactions can gradually rekindle the love and mutual respect that brought you together in the first place. However, all of this is sometimes very difficult to do on your own, and many couples wait too long before seeking professional help.
Relationships fail most often because couples lack the communication skills to work out differences. They do not feed enough positivity into the Emotional Bank Account and over time, it gets depleted. Circular arguments, where the more you try to explain your side, the more your partner does too, are a clear warning sign of a relationship in trouble. This pattern fuels both of you to reiterate your points over and over again in a never-ending cycle where each of you looks for a win. In this situation, you will both lose. It is a slippery slope from here toward contemptuous behaviour, which is a leading predictor of divorce, according to Dr. John Gottman. Contempt includes mean-spirited ridicule, disrespect, condescension, mockery, name-calling and even disgust to cruelly attack your partner at the core.
Well before your relationship devolves to this stage, contact a professional. Therapists trained in relationship dynamics can offer a game plan that helps you communicate better with each other to refill your Emotional Bank Account.