What do you think most couples argue about? Sex? Money? In-laws? Actually, the number one thing couples argue about is the failure to connect emotionally. Every couple has what Dr. John 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, while those who divorced averaged 33%.
The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how they manage their Emotional Bank Account. 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. When the Emotional Bank Account is in the red, partners tend to question each other’s intentions and hold fierce grudges.
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’s 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’re 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.
On the other hand, when you’re going through your day and you’re suddenly interrupted by a negative interaction, it has a much bigger impact on your Emotional Bank Account.
It stands that an emotionally wealthy relationship 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.” With that in mind, here are five science-based ways to create a wealth of love and passion in your relationship:
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 a Stress Reducing Conversation (aka the “How was your day, dear?” conversation) is probably the most important conversation a couple can have. This conversation is a form of active listening in which you respond to each other’s venting with empathy and without judgement. Since the issues have nothing to do with the marriage, it’s much easier to express support and understanding of your partner’s worries and stresses.
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.
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’re mindful about turning toward one another’s bids for connection.
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. And that, my friends, is priceless.