Everyday Ways to Fill Your Emotional Bank Account

What partners can do to keep their relationship out of the red

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Financial bank accounts help us navigate our finances. The goal is to have a plentiful amount of money in there so that we can spend what we need to without depleting the funds. When we have enough to cover our expenses, we feel relaxed and safe financially. However, when we start to get low, we begin to feel a bit anxious. Dropping below $0 means trouble. 

So, why am I talking about bank accounts in a blog on relationships? It is because, according to Dr. John Gottman, we have other bank accounts that we may not even be aware of and, hence, not managing correctly. These are our emotional bank accounts with our partner. 

The Emotional Bank Account

An emotional bank account works the same as a financial bank account (except you can’t see it and it can be harder to track). When you build up enough positive interactions with your partner, your emotional bank account is flourishing. You feel relaxed and safe in the relationship. If you have to withdraw (i.e. you have a fight or a bid fails), it doesn’t feel too bad. You know you have enough in there that you won’t end up in the red. 

However, when you start to get too low (i.e., the positive interactions do not outweigh the negative), some anxiety in the relationship may set in. If the negative overtakes your relationship, this is when you begin to feel that your relationship is in trouble. You become extremely concerned and perhaps even frantic as to how you will build the relationship back up—just as we would feel frantic if our financial bank account dipped below $0. 

The Magic Ratio

Where things get a little different with the emotional vs. financial bank account is that one positive interaction in the relationship does not allow for one negative to stay balanced, as it does monetarily. Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that couples need five positive interactions for every negative interaction just to break even. You need 20 positive interactions to outweigh one negative (it’s called the Magic Ratio). Therefore, to keep your emotional bank account flourishing, you need to make many more deposits than you do withdrawals. 

How to deposit in the Emotional Bank Account

What does a deposit into an emotional bank account look like? If you think you are in a deficit with your partner, or just want to make sure your emotional bank account is flourishing, the following are some ways to begin making deposits:

  • Catch your partner doing something good. Notice what your partner does that you appreciate (even if it is something they do every day) and say thank you.
  • Give your partner a compliment. The most impactful compliments are ones about who your partner is as a person. For example, “I really love and appreciate how thoughtful you are of others.” Then follow your compliment with an example of a time your partner demonstrated that trait (e.g., “I remember when you sent that sympathy card to our neighbors when their dog died. That was so sweet.”) 
  • Respond positively to your partner’s bids. Partners make bids for connection with one another every day. Looking for and responding positively requires that you are present in the relationship. Make sure you find time on a daily basis to set aside distractions (e.g., phone, computer, TV, etc.) and be available to your partner. This will allow space for more bids to be made and will increase your chances of seeing them.
  • Do something nice for them. We all have opportunities throughout our day to do something kind for our partner. For example, make them coffee in the morning, empty the dishwasher even though it isn’t your turn (or usual responsibility), or offer to cook dinner when you know they’ve had a hard day. The options are endless.
  • Show genuine interest in your partner and their world. Maintain curiosity about your partner and how their world may have changed recently. Then find some time to engage them and ask them questions. This can be as simple as, “How was your day today, honey?” Or it can be a little more in-depth such as, “What are your aspirations for the next few years?” Whatever the question, when you show interest, you send the message that you care about your partner and their world is important to you.
  • Show your partner physical affection. This could include a six-second kiss before you walk out the door, a hug after returning home, holding their hand while watching TV, or snuggling up next to them in bed.
  • Spend quality time with them. Planning quality time with your partner sends the message that they are important. It allows dedicated space for the two of you to connect. 
  • Give them a gift. Let your partner know that you are thinking of them in a tangible way. This can be large or small; it doesn’t matter the cost. It’s just one way to let your partner know you care about them.
  • Support them emotionally. We all have hard moments in life. When your partner reaches toward you to express some difficult emotions, make sure you listen to them and provide empathy and support.

Finding ways to fill your partner’s emotional bank account each day can help ensure that the negatives in the relationship don’t cause your relationship to dip into the red. The relationship will be able to weather the difficult times better, and it will keep you on track for maintaining a healthy, happy life together.

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Kimberly Panganiban is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with a private practice in San Diego, CA. She is a Certified Gottman Therapist, Trainer, and Consultant. Her practice focuses on premarital couples, newlyweds, long-term relationships, affairs/betrayals, sexual dissatisfaction, and the transition to parenthood. Visit her website.

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