A bank account works only by depositing money. When we need it, we withdraw that money. An emotional bank account is a transaction of trust. It’s an accounting based on how safe (or dangerous) you feel with another person.

Stephen R. Covey first coined this term (emotional bank account) to describe the build-up of trust in a relationship. You make deposits through your courtesy, kindness, honesty, and integrity. I come to rely on you and you are dependable. The more we interact in a reliable way, the larger the balance. When I trust you, we talk easily, communicate effectively, and are understood instantly.

If I have built up a history of emotional deposits and offended you, we can recover quickly and continue our friendship.

However, I will eventually overdraw even a wealth of goodwill if I; regularly disrespect you, abandon you in your time of need, overreact to the slightest provocation, am unpredictable, lie to you, threaten you, act pompous and self-important, or display a lack of integrity,

I stop trusting you. I’m careful about everything I say. I am no longer comfortable around you. Depending on how severe the betrayal, our relationship may become either perfunctory, and superficially friendly, hostile and defensive, or in open all-out warfare.

The central equation, Covey argues, is whether your regular interactions with others deposit or withdraw emotional currency. The closer your contact, the more constant our deposits need to be. We need to “invest” in our closest relationships in order to sustain them.

Gottman’s research added math to this equation calling this the “magic ratio” of 5:1. For every withdrawal (lie, meltdown, insult) I get, I’ll have to receive 5 positive deposits in my emotional bank account to be even.

Gottman’s research behind the Emotional Bank Account

Gottman’s long-term study of couples found that those who were still happy together after 6 years had a strong friendship and were able to respond positively (make “bids”) to their partner 86% of the time in the laboratory.

Those who failed to emotionally connect responded to bids 33% of the time.

What is a bid?

According to the Gottman Institute, bids are like units of emotional communication.

We call the act of turning toward your partner in a positive interaction a “bid” for attention. If we fail to answer a partner’s bids, we call that a negative interaction (a failed attempt to engage your partner) the act of turning away or turning against.

John Gottman uses simple examples to describe bids (keep eye contact, show interest, complement, and notice your partner). The reality of maintaining a positive balance, however, is much more complicated.

There aren’t quick fixes for a troubled relationship. People can distinguish a genuine interest in them from a superficial engagement.

You can’t fake it. If instead of investing in your relationship you generate an IOU for every act of kindness, (“Look what I’ve done for you and this is how you repay me?!”) it’s no longer a deposit, it’s a loan.

Bids matter… and managing your emotional bank account is the best way to establish and maintain a positive sentiment override.

Emotional bank account deposits

Dr. Covey outlines examples of deposits summarized below:

  1. Understanding the Individual. According to Covey, you can’t make a deposit or a genuine bid for connection unless you truly understand the person. One person’s deposit is another’s withdrawal. To truly make a deposit, what is important to that person becomes important to you.

This means more than listening intently to what the other person is saying and empathizing with how they may feel, although that’s important.

I worked with one couple in a long-term marriage facing a painful divorce. A stepfamily, the wife shared that the children had little fondness for their stepdad. The adult daughter spoke up in a moment of candor and told her Mother:

He doesn’t actually care about me or any of us, really. He asks me how my day was, but it’s clear he’s disinterested and he only asks in front of you. We’ve never gone out to dinner or a movie together, in the entire time you’ve been married, even when I was younger. He claims to care for me, but I don’t see it…

She’s sharing that her stepfather never took a genuine interest in her, despite being superficially pleasant and occasionally helpful.

Don’t be like that stepfather. Learn about your partner and take an interest in what interests them.

2. Attend to the Little Things

The smallest gestures sometimes indicate the greatest caring. One wife spoke bitterly about how her husband never could remember how she liked to be seduced sexually. He would repeatedly grab her breasts and ask her: “You wanna play around?” She felt used and abused.

In contrast, another partner’s marriage was turned around when her husband began a series of rituals to prepare the bedroom every night by turning down the sheets, laying out her slippers, and asking if he could undress her…a seduction ritual she adored.

Which couple do you imagine had more sex?

3. Keep Commitments

Few withdrawals are more impactful than a broken promise. Make only promises you intend to keep or make no promises at all.

4. Clarify Expectations

Be clear about what your goals in life are as a couple. Dream and share your values and goals. Couples can withstand a lot if they do so with a purpose.

5. Show Personal Integrity

Personal integrity is the basis of many different kinds of deposits. Integrity includes not only honesty but also fully removing any intent to deceive or manipulate. Demonstrate loyalty no matter who you are talking to. One of the greatest violations in marriages is an affair, especially when the involved partner talks badly about the spouse to the affair partner.

Treat everyone by the same set of principles and don’t talk badly about people who aren’t with you.

Finally, showing integrity is having the willingness to disagree openly instead of pretending to agree passive-aggressively. And confront when that is appropriate to do so. Hold your spouse to the level they claim to value.

6. Own up.

This goes beyond an apology. Actions speak louder than words. An apology without behavior change is a withdrawal instead of a deposit.

People trust what they can understand. If you aren’t able to explain your motives, minimize or misdirect, you are showing ill will. A deep withdrawal indeed.

As one saying goes: to be trusted is greater than to be loved. Gottman argues, that trust is one pillar that holds up the marital house.

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.