Emotional Bank Account
An emotional bank account is an internal measure of interpersonal trust. The balance sheet shows how often bids for attention are met by each life partner. When you turn toward your spouse, you’re making a deposit, and when you turn away or turn against your partner, you’re making a withdrawal. 

A surplus of goodwill will buffer the relationship when the inevitable withdrawals happen. 

Gottman’s research called this the golden ratio of 5:1, that’s 5 deposits for every withdrawal from an emotional bank account. The balance of your emotional bank account is an indication of your overall sentiment override.

If there is an ample supply of goodwill in the relationship, the couple is said to be in positive sentiment override. If the emotional bank account is overdrawn, the couple is in negative sentiment override. 

The impossible dilemma of an empty emotional bank account is that it utterly blinds us from seeing anything remotely positive about our spouse.

Some of these truths are found in humor. A joke from the early 20th century has a husband and wife in their bedroom, preparing to go to a party.

“Do you think I look fat in this dress?”

No, you look great in that dress!

So you’re telling me that I look fat in all my other dresses? You never stop criticizing me!

All humor aside...what does science tell us about Emotional Bank Accounts?

The research behind the Emotional Bank Account

Gottman’s longitudinal research allowed him to follow up with couples years later and mathematically track the difference between happy and struggling couples.

Researchers found that the couples who were doing well 6 years later had a good friendship system and had turned toward their partner 86% of the time in the lab.

But when they looked at the couples with depleted emotional bank accounts, they had only turned toward one another an average of 33% in the lab, 6 years earlier. 

Gottman was able to hone in on this essential difference between struggling couples and thriving couples. It all came down to how spouses managed their Emotional Bank Accounts.

When Emotional Bank Accounts are overdrawn, spouses typically feel skeptical, disconnected, and lonely.

But when you have a healthy balance of goodwill in your emotional bank account, you are both better able to maintain a positive perspective on the marriage...and a positive perspective depends on the magic 5:1 ratio.

Why does a 5:1 ratio matter?

emotional bank account and positive sentiment override

What do these numbers mean...5:1? Gottman couples therapy emphasizes the mundane and everyday interactions over the occasional grand gesture. Your emotional bank account is enhanced when deposits mathematically outnumber withdrawals by a ratio of 5 positive interactions to 1 negative.

An emotionally rich marriage is not achieved during a two-week dream vacation to Jamaica. Instead, it’s built on positive daily habits and satisfying encounters with your spouse.

Most couples fail to realize how day by day, seemingly minor interactions make a profound difference in the relationship.

What is a bid?

We call the act of turning toward a “bid” for attention from your partner a deposit, and an act of turning away or turning against a withdrawal.

Gottman noticed this phenomenon in his legendary Love Lab. The visiting couples had a beautiful view of Puget Sound through a dramatic picture window in the living room.

Researchers noticed that when a wife commented on the view, some husbands move physically closer toward their wives and commented favorably (turning toward).

Other husbands would continue to watch TV as they did before her comment. They may grunt in acknowledgment... but there was no eye contact or bestowed attention. This behavior was deemed “turning away.”

Sometimes a husband would react to his wife lingering at the picture window with criticism. “Why are you staring out the window like a zombie? It’s just water and boats. You’re such a scatterbrain.” This is an example of what Gottman calls “turning against.”

Gottman tells us plainly, it’s all math. Bids matter… and managing your emotional bank account is the best way to establish and maintain a positive sentiment override.

1.  You must learn the best way to talk about your stress...and listen to your partner talk about theirs…

Even before COVID, researchers knew that external stress was the single greatest factor with couples sliding back into old patterns after spending a great deal of money and time in couples therapy. 

Recent COVID-related stress is just old grief in new, larger bottles.

Sometimes even therapists don’t emphasize this enough. 

Effective stress management works as a “direct deposit” into your emotional bank accounts.

 A Stress-Reducing Conversation is an elegant intervention. For a mere investment of 20 minutes each, both of you will discuss external (not marital) stressors. The goal is simple. Listen as a friend would listen. Validate your partner's feelings, and refrain from sliding into problem-solving mode. They want to be understood, above everything else.

2.  Don’t Pay attention….bestow attention

When you pay attention, you are more often, doing so in a perfunctory way. 

Perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of this is the social fiction of “multi-tasking”, which seeks to parse slivers of attention on an as-needed basis. 

How many of you reading this have competed with your spouse’s Smartphone one time too many?

But when you bestow attention, it is an intimate gift...and you know the value of what you are freely giving. 

All other matters are set aside.

Your partner has your full and undivided attention... because that is the sacred manner in which you choose to bestow it right now.

You don’t have to do this all the time...just when you want to make a significant deposit. The more you bestow attention, in most cases, the greater the velocity of emotional bank account deposits.

3.  Notice the good.

When a partner is in negative sentiment override, they tend not to notice small positives throughout the day. 

Slow down... Notice... 

If your partner does something helpful...praise them.

 Every time you do that, you will be elegantly reinforcing the behavior you’d like to see more of, while simultaneously depositing goodwill into your partner’s emotional bank account. Do small things often with love and mindfulness.

4.  Follow the emotion.

This is closely related to the importance of having Stress-Reducing Conversations because if you don’t attend to emotion first, it has a way of escalating. 

Give your partner the benefit of the doubt...ask good questions about what they are feeling, and what you can do to help. Feelings first. Solutions later.

5.  Convey affection with touch…and hugs and kisses when appropriate.

Researchers have carefully studied non-sexual intimate touch. The science is in. Welcome touch, hugs, and kisses can be a powerful tool in soothing your nervous system.

Because mind-reading is not allowed in couples therapy, it’s important to appreciate the gender differences concerning this research. 

According to my friend and colleague Rick Miller, same-sex couples often experience a more complicated dynamic of gender similarity. 

For example, Gay Men often struggle with a tendency to withdraw when they argue with their partner. 

And research tells us that same-sex female couples tend to have more good humor and forbearance, perhaps again due to gender similarities. 

Obviously, this is a your-mileage-may-vary situation, but gender and socialization for same-sex couples also inform how these couples navigate the demands and joys of intimacy. 

Gottman emphasizes that same-sex couples have unique strengths, and respond extremely well to science-based couples therapy.

Among heterosexual couples, husbands interpreted physical affection as a sign that all was well in their relationship. They saw holding hands and receiving hugs and kisses as a sign that they were approved of by their spouse. In other words...so far...so good.

Wives, on the other hand, view it a bit differently. For women, the less physical affection they received, the less satisfied they were with the marriage. This is true regardless of sexual orientation.

It seems that physical touch, hugs, and kisses are powerful deposits in a typical wife’s Emotional Bank Account. The absence of physical contact is a far more impactful variable in a wife’s negative sentiment override.

6.  Keep your promises.

Some spouses have trouble keeping their word. Often they want to avoid conflict, so they may say yes... when they really mean no. 

Partners make deposits in their partner’s Emotional Bank Account when they treat their word as their bond. The paradox is, you may have more conflict, but that is an opportunity for growth and change.

The flip side of keeping your commitments is to slow down and clarify your partner’s expectations, as well as your own. This requires good communication skills. We can help with that.

 In our Couples Therapy Intensive Retreat, we will teach you concrete, practical skills to rebuild marital trust and how to resume making deposits into your respective Emotional bank accounts.

7.  Be considerate when you make a withdrawal.

When you make frequent deposits, you have a buffer when you drop the ball or make an unwise decision. If you’ve given your word and came up short, apologize and listen to your partner without becoming overly defensive.

A withdrawal from the Emotional Bank Account goes much easier, and things are far less tense when there is a healthy balance of goodwill. But when your Emotional Bank Account is in the red, even a small withdrawal can be perilous and provocative.

Learning to communicate and repair when withdrawals occur is a teachable skill. We can help with that online too.

Is reinvesting in your partner’s emotional bank account too much work?

Some of us have misplaced our vulnerability because it’s easier to open up a new Emotional Bank Account with someone new than it is to endure an emotional audit from a frustrated and aggrieved partner.

We are living in historic times. We need each other. But it’s up to us to have a higher expectation from our intimate relationships. 

But this awareness only comes from our minds...the part of us that can bear witness to the burdens oppressing our brains...and manage to heal anyway.

Somewhere between “good enough” and “revitalized” is a space that I like to help couples visit more often. A healthy balance in a couple’s Emotional Bank Accounts assures resilience and flexibility during these challenging times.

Final thoughts on emotional bank accounts

We all have Emotional Bank Accounts with our spouses. 

It makes sense for us to notice them, and make constructive complaints when the balance with our partner becomes perilously low.  

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that our brains do not give a tinker’s damn whether or not we are happy. 

Our brains are mostly preoccupied with our physical safety...and they’ve had a lot to worry about lately.

Our brains just aren’t that motivated to make things better if it’s not seen as a life or death issue. They are designed by nature to primarily seek pleasure and avoid pain.

It’s comforting for motivated couples when they realize that the 5:1 ratio is a mathematical miracle. Science-based couples therapy has decades of research to help couples reconnect emotionally. Deliberate effort can produce positive results

Couples can learn the way back to positive sentiment override and an abundant Emotional Bank Account. We can help with that. 

Contact us today to learn more about how to increase the balance of your Emotional Bank Accounts.

References

Gottman, J. (1993a). The roles of conflict engagement, escalation, and avoidance in marital interaction: A longitudinal view of five types of couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 6–15. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.61.1.6

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Gottman, J. M., Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 47–52. doi:10.1037//0022-006X.57.1.47

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Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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