Apply The Research: Building Your Emotional Bank Account

Hollywood has dramatically distorted our notions of romance and confused us entirely about what makes passion burn.

Hollywood has dramatically distorted our notions of romance and confused us entirely about what makes passion burn.

Hollywood has dramatically distorted our notions of romance and confused us entirely about what makes passion burn. While watching Ryan Gosling pour his heart out in “The Notebook” may make your heart pound, real-life romance is fueled by the ways in which you interact with each other in the little moments that make up your day. It is kept alive through a joined effort to stay connected. It is created each time you let your partner know that he or she is valued and loved by you.

Romance does not have to grow in a boat carrying Ryan Gosling through tumbling waves and sea spray. It can also grow in a supermarket. It grows when Becky asks, “Are we out of bleach?” and instead of shrugging, her husband says, “I don’t know. Let me go get some just in case!” It grows when Eric wakes up in the morning to say, “I had the worst nightmare last night,” and his girlfriend responds, “I’m sorry honey – I’ve got to run to work, but tell me a little bit about it now so we can talk about it more this evening!” instead of “I don’t have time, I have to go.” In one case, the partners respond to a bid with “turning towards,” and in the other, they “turn away” – a choice that sends their mate a message about whether or not they are attentive, caring, supportive. These everyday moments can either be a source of stability or a source of stress. 

In relationships, these seemingly unimportant moments are the ones which are most important of all. They force you to make a quick decision, often entirely unaware that it may play a role in determining the strength or weakness of your emotional connection! If you don’t pay attention to these little moments, your failures to turn towards each other build up, and you risk undermining the strength of your bond. Luckily, our research provides a strategy to avoid putting your relationship in jeopardy.

We have discovered (from the research study discussed on Wednesday) that a major indicator of a couple’s overall happiness is what we’ve come to call their Emotional Bank Account. Partners who characteristically turn towards each other rather than away are putting money in the bank. They are building up emotional savings that can give them a sense of peace and security when they go through hard times. Because they have stored up so much mutual goodwill, they are better able to make allowances for each other when conflicts arise.

Though it is challenging to always notice when your partner does turn towards you, out research has shown that taking the time to see the benefits of your work will pay off. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman describes a study in which couples were observed at home, noting that “happily married couples noticed almost all of the positive things the researchers observed their partners do for them…unhappily married couples underestimated their partners’ loving intentions by 50 percent!”

If you regularly contribute to your Emotional Bank Account, you and your partner will both understand each other’s intentions much better when conflict arises! Rather than interpreting each other’s words as intentionally aggressive or negative, even when they are not meant that way, you will hear each other’s message loud and clear: Though at the moment you may be arguing, you both know that you love each other, and that this momentary conflict is much, much less important to each of you than your relationship.

Here’s Dr. Gottman on building an Emotional Bank Account:

In Monday’s posting, we will continue The Research series by offering an in-depth analysis of a groundbreaking research study on divorce prediction performed by Dr. John Gottman.

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.