Suffering Because Your Goodwill Account is Running on Empty?

Hold on to Your Fork!

Have you ever heard of the following saying?

If you dislike someone you can be annoyed simply by how they hold their fork. But if you like someone it would hardly matter if they dump their dinner on your lap.”

This saying is truly an accurate reflection of how things work in relationships. If we are feeling close, connected and loving towards our partner, we are very likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, when we are more distant, disconnected or having frequent arguments, there’s very little chance we’d let them slide at all (especially if their dinner somehow ended up on our lap!).

What’s the balance in Your Emotional Bank Account?

One way of identifying how close or connected we are with our partner is to examine the status of our emotional bank account. This term, originated by John Gottman, basically tells us if we doing the little things in our relationship that bring us close (when our emotional accounts are “full”) or if we have experienced more distance & disconnectedness (if our account is close to empty). A similar term used by Gottman, Positive Sentiment Override refers to the state in a relationship where couples view their partner and their partner’s actions through a positive filter. This positive filter exists because of the closeness and high ratio of positive to negative interactions that exists in the relationship. This is in stark contrast to having a negative sentiment override where couples unfortunately view one another through a negative filter.

Do You “Turn Toward” Your Partner?

There are numerous ways to fill your emotional bank account and accrue savings for your relationship future. Surprisingly, they do not (necessarily) involve romantic weekend getaways or buying lavish gifts for your partner. In fact, they actually involve the little interactions in relationships that connect you with your partner. For example, when you and your partner have a conversation about running out of light bulbs while in the hardware store, you are actually filling your emotional bank account. What may appear mundane is actually very important to your relationship. Leaving a 30 second voicemail with words of support at your partner’s work is another example of how to feed your emotional bank account. Engaging your partner in small conversations and leaving them voicemails are ways of making a bid for affection, conversation, humor or support from your partner. When you make such a bid, your partner can either turn toward or turn away from your request. In satisfying and stable relationships, couples are often turning toward their partner. According to Gottman, when there is a 20:1 or greater ratio of positive to negative interactions in your relationship, you have entered the state of positive sentiment override. However, when this ratio is less than 5:1, you are unfortunately experiencing a negative sentiment override in your relationship that is statistically far less likely to be stable.

Why This Matters

Couples who turn toward one another rather quickly fill up their emotional bank account, which makes a tremendous difference in your relationship. It not only creates the positive sentiment override (where couples experience a positive filter when viewing the past, present & future in their relationship), but it also allows the relationship to utilize this emotional savings to assist them in times of stress or conflict. However, the biggest impact that occurs when couples turn toward one another consistently might be in how it contributes to a long-lasting romance.

Think of it this way: Turning toward your partner consistently is like keeping the pilot light lit during the day so that the romantic fire can burn easily at night!

Got Questions?

My partner and I have been avoiding one another for a while now and it’s getting lonely. What can I do to change that?

If you and your partner have been distant for an extended time, your relationship is most likely in a state of negative sentiment override. In order to overcome this distance, I would suggest starting to make bids for connection in very small ways with the hope that your partner turns toward you in order to start filling your emotional bank account. Also, do not ignore your partner’s attempts to connect with you.

What should I do if my partner turns away from me when I bid for connection or attention?

The first step is to review the ways you are making bids for connection and see if there are other (little) ways that you can try to connect. If these attempts don’t help you connect with your partner, it may be time to seek professional assistance from a couples counselor.

You mentioned the significance of the ratio of positive to negative interactions in relationships. Should I be keeping track of every interaction?

No, it’s not necessary to calculate your exact ratio. However, it is important to become aware of all the various opportunities to engage in positive interactions and then to make bids for connection as frequently as possible.

Every time my partner or I try to have any meaningful discussion, we end up arguing and get nowhere. Is there any way we can build our emotional bank account?

Building your emotional bank account in your relationship cannot realistically take place when you are both often upset with one another. The first place to start is to begin making repair attempts (see other article) by taking responsibility for some aspect of the disagreement. If successful, then you could start to make bids for connection and build your emotional bank account. If that does not help, it is likely time to seek professional help with a couples counselor.

Example From My Practice

One couple in my practice who I have been working with for about 8 months recently spoke of an interaction they had at a party they were hosting. The husband had discovered in the middle of the party that his wife did not get the leaky faucet repaired. He had assumed that she had already taken care of it. So, in the middle of the party, after discovering it still leaked, he said to her “You really need to get this fixed this week.” The wife said very little at the time. However, the next morning he had realized his comment might have been taken the wrong way so he asked her how she took it. The wife said it didn’t faze her at all.

After working with this couple for 8 months, they had already made fairly dramatic progress. In doing so, they had effectively filled up their emotional bank account. As a result, it never occurred to her that his comment could have even been interpreted in a negative way. It could be said that the wife gave the husband the benefit of the doubt, except that their emotional savings was so “full” she never even saw any possible negative intentions he may have had. Interestingly, if the same comment would have been made at the beginning of our work together (when their emotional bank account was near empty), it would have almost certainly caused a significant argument.

In Summary, How Do I Make A Deposit?

1. Be mindful of all those little everyday, “mundane” moments. These are golden opportunities to have a positive interaction and turn toward your partner.

2. Build your emotional bank account balance by not only making bids to connect to your partner, but also ensure that you turn toward your partner when they try to connect with you!

3. Remember that the higher the ratio of positive to negative interactions (preferably 20:1 or greater) will bring your relationship into a state of positive sentiment override which research shows strongly increases relationship satisfaction.

4. Lastly, don’t forget to keep your “pilot lit” consistently by connecting to your partner in order to build a long lasting romance!


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