What is love?

A variety of symbols and metaphors have been created to depict what love really is.

What is love? A variety of symbols and metaphors have been created to depict what love really is. Throughout history love has been likened to a rose by Bette Midler – something delicate and precious; the wind by Nicholas Sparks (a romance novelist) – something that cannot be seen but only felt; and famously, by William Shakespeare, a child that longs for everything it comes by. Dr John
Gottman and his wife Dr Julie Schwartz-Gottman, professors at the University of Washington, are arguably today’s most prominent researchers in the field of love & relationships. To the Dr’s Gottman, Love is like a BANK that we deposit into and withdraw out of each day.

In the Emotional Bank Account of our relationships, each person is in charge of their partner’s bank. Their actions towards each other function as either deposits or withdrawals from that account. Thriving couples are usually well into the green-zone, while couples that break up have often spent  much time in the red zone before reaching the decision to terminate their relationship.

Our positive interactions make deposits into our partner’s bank account. Simple acts that show your partner that you value him/her that you are genuinely interested in his/her life and that you are committed to him/her, all make considerable deposits into his/her emotional bank account. According to Drs John and Julie Gottman, small actions performed regularly, such as listening to your partner’s current concerns with a sense of understanding, rather than judging or trying to solve them, are greater deposits to the emotional bank account than grand gestures of love performed sporadically – “It’s the small things, done often, that make more difference than the big things, done sometimes” (Dr John Gottman). 

A withdrawal from the bank, on the other hand, is transacted in the case of any neglectful or hurtful behaviour towards your partner. One might think that withdrawals are limited to arguments where hurtful words are exchanged; or relationship traumas such as infidelity or deceit. However, while these are certainly significant withdrawals, it is oftentimes the more subtle actions that can drain your partner’s bank dry over time. 

Turning-Towards, Turning Away or Turning Against

As observed by the Gottmans over their 40 years of research, couples make periodic ‘bids’ toward one another. A bid represents any attempt to connect with your partner, such as asking them what their day was like or offering them a hug or a kiss. When studying both the masters and disasters of relationships, Drs John and Julie Gottman found a striking difference between their responses to their partner’s bids for connection. They categorised one’s response to their partner’s bid for connection as either ‘Turning-Towards’, ‘Turning Away’ or ‘Turning Against’.

To illustrate each of these, imagine a couple who is seated at dinner together where one partner says to the other, “I’m really worried about how much weight I’ve gained over the Christmas period”. Here’s how each response to this bid may look:

  • Turning Towards – “It has been a pretty eventful Christmas hasn’t it? We’ve had a lot more family lunches and dinners than most years and I’ve probably overdone it too! What do you think we could do to get back on track?”
  • Turning Away – “*Grunt*” – No response – the person just continues to eat without acknowledging what the other has said.
  • Turning Against – “Here you go again! About you and your weight! If you really have a problem with it then why don’t you stop donating money to the gym and start using it!?”

‘Turning Away’ and ‘Turning Against’ both make significant withdrawals while ‘Turning Towards’ acts as deposit into our partner’s bank account. However, the two are not equal! According to the Gottman literature, there is a 5:1 ratio between deposits and withdrawals. That means, it takes five deposits, to make up for one withdrawal.  Happy couples maintain at least this 5:1 ratio. In fact, according to their research, the Gottman’s found that the masters of relationships ‘Turned Towards’ their partner’s bids for connection 86% of the time, while the disasters turned towards only 33% of the time.

In light of the fact that couples make more than 50 bids for connection per day (with the ‘Masters of Relationships’ making one hundred bids in 10 minutes), our decision to turn towards each other’s daily bids for connection, is arguably one of the most important things to consider in looking to create a healthy and thriving relationship. So be on the lookout for your partner’s bids for connection today. It could be something they actually say, or something as subtle as a *sigh* when they sit down for dinner. In such a case, try to turn towards them. Turning towards can be difficult, especially when we’re stressed or tired.  However, our partner’s emotional bank account is connected to our own, and our turning away from them will soon result in our own bank account starting to feel empty also. 

So how do you know if the emotional bank accounts in your relationship are dry?

There is a common symptom of an empty emotional bank account which Drs John & Julie Gottman called ‘Negative Sentiment Override’. This is essentially a state where one’s perspective of the other becomes skewed towards the negative. Even the slightest annoyance or misdemeanour by your partner (such as neglecting to put away clothes or running late to an appointment) seems pulls you into deep anger and frustration. This then clouds anything positive your partner may have done, to the point that you don’t see it. ‘Negative Sentiment Override’ is a state which many couples fall into when their emotional bank accounts run on empty, and to make matters worse, this override can then hijack them into behaviours such as criticism, defensiveness, or shutting off from each other. As a result, both partners continue to make withdrawals into the red zone and run each other’s bank further into debit, to the point that declaring bankruptcy seems the only option.  

The reality however is that it is not the only option! 

The good news from the work of Drs Gottman is there are a specific set of the skills, techniques and rituals utilised by the masters of relationship that can be taught to us all. The only ingredient we require is willingness to improve the state of our current relationship. 

Therefore, as an initiative for couples the Psychology team at Living Valley has incorporated the 40 years of research from the Gottman Institute on Relationship Therapy to help couples acquire a set of practical tools, insights and skills that are targeted at rejuvenating your relationship. We would love the opportunity to work with you and your partner as you invest in each other’s ‘Emotional Bank Account’ in 2020!

For more information view our couples retreat program.

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Ric Elysee-Collen

Author Ric Elysee-Collen

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