Spending couple time together and doing things to nurture your relationship is very important. This is what the Gottmans call putting deposits into your emotional bank account. Just like a bank account, if you’ve made regular deposits, when an unexpected expense comes up, you have reserves to draw on.
If you’ve made enough regular deposits into your relationship’s emotional bank account, when something occurs to put stress on the relationship, for example an argument, your thoughts, feelings and reactions to that argument will be either neutral or positive.
If you feel emotionally connected in your relationship, without knowing it, you’ve probably been using the research-based strategies for giving and nurturing your intimate relationship.
Here’s an example of how this plays out. If your partner comes home late from work one day, a neutral or positive reaction arises because you automatically give them the benefit of the doubt. You probably think and feel something like this: “Her boss has been asking her to work back late for weeks now. She’s trying her best at home and at work”. Or “Poor thing, he must have been caught up in the traffic jam from that breakdown I heard about on the news”.
An Empty Emotional Bank Account
If things aren’t going well in your relationship, and you don’t feel emotionally nurtured by each other, the opposite will happen. A totally different, negative reaction will happen about their lateness.
Without a reservoir of deposits in your relationship’s emotional bank account, your immediate reactions would probably be along these lines: “She never cares about my feelings! She’s so self-centered “ or “There he goes again, he’s always inconsiderate!” “Never” and “always” are sure signs that your emotional bank account is empty. You can’t give them the benefit of the doubt because you have no reserves to draw on.
Your emotional brain takes over
You can guess what happens now. It’s the low road – the reactive, instinctive emotional part of your brain hijacks your thinking brain and it goes from bad to worse. If you have negative reactions to things, they trigger negative feelings as well as aggressive, withdrawing or unkind behaviours in both of you. These trigger more negative interactions in an increasingly downward spiral.
What most people don’t realise is that with repeated practice you can change these negative reactions and interactions. If you regularly practice self-soothing and self-care, practice research-based skills to build trust and to nurture your relationship, you can create new feelings, thoughts and behaviours. These then give rise to new and better emotional responses and a much happier relationship. You’ll feel like friends again.
Unless you put new skills in place, you’ll be trapped in your brain’s automatic responses of fight/flight/freeze. You’ll keep believing your own negative stories and emotions. You’ll continue to fight to defend your own perspective. Your partner will feel like an enemy and you’ll treat each other like one.
Because you each keep believing your perspective is the right one, you’ll remain caught in the power struggle stage of relationship. Take heart. Nothing is necessarily going wrong. This is a predictable stage in a couple relationship. There is a way out of this stage, even though some couples get caught in it for decades.
What you can do about negative interactions
First, a word of warning. This approach is totally not appropriate with anyone where you feel unsafe or abused. This needs a completely different approach, often requiring exit strategies and safety plans. If your partner is violent, abusive, heavily controlling, accuses you of being crazy or threatens your safety in any way, please seek help immediately. You cannot deal with this alone. Call RESPECT – 1800 737 732, or go to these websites RESPECT and White Ribbon Australia for support.
If you’re not in an abusive relationship, here’s what you can do.
- Don’t assume you know why your partner acts in a certain way, ask them. If their explanation is more kind and generous than your assumption, accept it at face value.
- Remember you’ll be less likely to jump to negative conclusions if your relationship has savings in the emotional bank account. Spend quality time together, talk, touch, buy them a gift or help them with chores. Find out what your partner’s main love language is by doing this free Five Love Languages quiz together. Then give to your partner in their main love language, not yours.
- Showing you care – in ways that are meaningful for your partner – is guaranteed to nurture your relationship. Doing this is one of the many ways to keep building your awareness of your partner’s inner psychological world, sharing fondness and admiration of each other and turning towards each other so you frequently make deposits into your relationship’s emotional bank account. Feeling loving towards your partner is the easiest way to give them the benefit of the doubt they often rightly deserve.
- If you’re doing the above things consistently and don’t see much improvement, seek out a post-graduate trained couples counsellor. Read this page so you can make sure your counsellor is well-trained in couples work. They are experienced in helping couples reconnect using evidence-based research methods. You don’t do your own dental work, do you? You go to an expert – the dentist. Go to an expertly trained couples counsellor if your own efforts haven’t helped.
- You may need a relationship rescue or a private, two day couples intensive retreat, tailor-made for just the two of you. Don’t wait too long because years of bad habits cause a lot of emotional hurt which may make change more difficult. World renowned marriage researcher John Gottman and his wife Julie Gottman claim that the average couple who begins relationship counselling has experienced relationship difficulties for over six years. The longer you wait to seek help, the more deeply entrenched the communication problems making them more resistant to treatment.
Read more information about the 15 Secrets to a Happy Relationship.
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