It turns out the number one thing couples fight about is nothing.

This not-so-earth-shattering discovery was made in Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab after spending more than 40 years studying over 3,000 couples. These couples were not arguing about specific topics like sex, money, or in-laws. They were fighting about the failure to connect emotionally.

Every couple has what Dr. Gottman calls an Emotional Bank Account. When we turn towards our partner’s bids for connection, we make a deposit. When we turn away, we make a withdrawal. Just like a real bank account, a zero balance is trouble.

An Emotional Bank Account grows when partners make more deposits than withdrawals. In a six-year follow-up study of newlywed couples, couples who remained married turned toward their partner’s bids for emotional connection 86% of the time in the lab, while those who divorced averaged 33%.

The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how they manage their Emotional Bank Account. Let’s see how this plays out in Wendy and Scott’s relationship as they watch football together on a Sunday afternoon.

Wendy: [Scrolling through Facebook] This hurricane is horrible. I feel so bad for all the people who are losing homes. One of my friends forgot to renew their insurance and lost everything. Isn’t that sad?
Scott: [No response]

Scott turns away from Wendy’s bid, missing an opportunity to make a deposit into their Emotional Bank Account. One single moment like this isn’t that important, but it can compound over time, creating disconnection and distance between partners.

Wendy: [Scrolling through Facebook] This hurricane is horrible. I feel so bad for all the people who are losing homes. One of my friends forgot to renew their insurance and lost everything. Isn’t that sad?
Scott: [Watching the game] That’s terrible. Who?
Wendy: The Johnsons.
Scott: Devastating.
Wendy: Right? I’ll message them and see if there’s anything we can do to support them.
Scott: Great idea. [Continues to watch the game]

Scott turns toward Wendy’s bid, making a deposit in their Emotional Bank Account. He isn’t even that engaged in the conversation, and that’s okay. The key is that he acknowledges her.

Seemingly unimportant moments like this one are essential because each time partners invest in their Emotional Bank Account, they are building up a savings that can be used when times get tough.

When the Emotional Bank Account is in the green, partners tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt during conflict. They keep their relationship in the positive perspective. When the Emotional Bank Account is in the red, partners tend to question each other’s intentions. They hold grudges.

Creating an emotional plan

You have the power to change your relationship by changing how you make and respond to bids for connection. However, not all bids are considered equal. Some are more positive or more negative than others.

So how do you measure the balance of your Emotional Bank Account?

Here is what Dr. Gottman found in his research:

  • To be satisfied in the relationship, couples must focus on increasing deposits and minimizing withdrawals
  • 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction during conflict
  • 20 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction during everyday life

Why the difference? Because when couples are in the heat of conflict, they are already in a negative state, so the added negativity is to be expected. This 5:1 ratio does suggest that you still need to say and do five positive things for every negative thing, even during an argument.

When you’re going through your day and you’re suddenly interrupted by a negative interaction, on the other hand, it has a much bigger impact on your Emotional Bank Account.

It stands that an emotionally wealthy marriage is not cultivated during a two-week vacation to Hawaii. Instead, it’s built on a daily routine of positive habits and interactions. As Dr. Gottman explains, “For many couples, just realizing that they shouldn’t take their everyday interactions for granted makes an enormous difference in their relationship.”

Here are five science-based ways to create a wealth of love and passion in your relationship.

Be mindful
Dr. Gottman says that “couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.” So be mindful of your partner’s bids for connection and turn towards them. This will make them feel heard and valued.

Express appreciation daily
Keep a journal (or a list in your iPhone Notes) of all the ways your partner has turned towards you, such as “texted during work to see how meeting went” or “went on an evening walk with me.” The goal is to take note of the deposits that are being made and then to express appreciation for them.

Talk about stress
One study discovered that the spillover of external stress into the relationship was the single biggest reason why couples relapsed two years after marital therapy. That’s why the Stress Reducing Conversation is probably the most important conversation a couple can have.

Communicate understanding
When your partner makes a complaint, express that you can understand why they’re frustrated. If they’re happy about something that happened at work, share in their excitement. We feel loved when we feel heard and understood.

Be affectionate
Kissing, holding hands, and cuddling are all opportunities to make deposits into your Emotional Bank Account. The Normal Bar study of more than 70,000 people in 24 countries found that couples who have a great sex life kiss one another passionately for no reason, they cuddle, and they are mindful about turning toward.

If you don’t have a rich Emotional Bank Account, start small by noticing your partner’s bids. Turn towards them. Again and again.

Bid by bid, your interactions will shape your relationship until your Emotional Bank Account represents the wealth of love and respect you have for each other. You can’t put a price on that.


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Kyle Benson

Kyle Benson is a nationally recognized couple’s mindset coach providing practical, research-based tools to build long-lasting relationships. Kyle is best known for his compassion and non-judgemental style and his capacity to see the root problem. Download the Intimacy 5 Challenge to learn where you and your partner can improve your emotional connection and build lasting intimacy. Connect with Kyle on Twitter and Facebook. For more tools visit kylebenson.net.