• Dr Jodie Bradnam

The Emotional Bank Account

Imagine a large, pretty glass jar with a strong sturdy base sitting alongside of bowl of brightly coloured balls. Now, adding one ball at a time to your imaginary jar, fill that glass jar. Notice how the balls negotiate their way into the vacant spaces and find a gap to rest. Step back and admire the colours.

This glass jar is the emotional bank account of your relationship. The emotional bank reflects shared feelings of closeness, trust, connection, and safety. Every relationship has one; every romantic partnership, parent and child relationship, and platonic friendship. Deposits to the emotional bank account are made each time one person attends and attunes to the needs of the other in a loving or supportive way. These gestures are referred to as bids for connection and are one of seven relationship principles outlined in Sound Relationship House theory (Gottman, 2011).

Offers of support, expressions of love, or acts of kindness are represented by the addition of new balls to the glass jar. Moments where we turn away from each other, criticise, ignore or neglect one another are represented by the removal of balls from the jar. In romantic partnerships especially, the account balance provides important information about the climate of the relationship and is a predictor of relationship quality.

When the balance of our shared emotional bank account is high, the relationship climate is positive. There is good will. We feel connected and close to our partners and feel confident that they are present and available to us. Our relationships are characterised by feelings of closeness, love and appreciation. When the relationship climate is positive, couples are more likely to perceive difficulties in the relationship as temporary and transient, be accepting of individual differences, and be willing to compromise. The positive sentiment creates a buffer that protects the relationship from negativity in times of stress and conflict.

Conversely, when couples neglect the friendship in the relationship, fail to express appreciation or acknowledge bids for emotional connection, there are few balls in the glass jar. In this state, couples are more likely to perceive minor problems in the relationship as global, negative and enduring. Partners are more likely to be reactive and defensive in their words and actions. When the balance of the emotional bank account is low, conflict tends to escalate quickly and couples find themselves expressing their unmet emotional needs in destructive ways.

There is a widely held myth that relationship intimacy is built in grand romantic gestures, expensive date nights, exotic week-long holiday escapes, and shiny, expensive gifts. In truth, intimacy and closeness are built in the tiny moments of connection that happen each day; when partners make time to talk, offer support, hold hands, share a kiss, respond to a text, and demonstrate kindness and appreciation. Each small gesture strengthens our emotional account balance and our connection to each other.

This is another reminder that love is most certainly an action.

Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York; Norton.