A few years ago I started seeing articles describing an “emotional bank account”. Intrigued, I googled the concept and found there’s a lot of research out there, primarily from marriage therapists, that shows this idea can really help people strengthen their relationships. Intangible ideas can be hard to grasp, particularly for linear thinkers (like my husband), but deposits and withdraws? Everyone “gets” simple banking terms.
My husband and I have a low conflict relationship, but like all couples, we hit roadblocks from time to time. It’s been super helpful for us, even as mid-life adults in their second marriages, to go back to basics from time to time. Reminding ourselves, and each other, that our relationship bank only runs when it has a healthy number of deposits, has been the check in we both need. Not only in discussions, when one of us brings up a frustration with the other person, but more crucially when doing self-work.
It’s human nature to think we’re great and perfect the way we are but hopefully, as each of us ages and gains insight and wisdom, we see our flaws. We sense that our most profound growth happens in times of great turmoil and pain. Yet what about the spaces in between, when life is just “normal”? Being able to acknowledge our imperfections and turn a realistic lens towards ourselves is a pain free way to continually grow and do better.
The ability to clearly examine our own behaviors, including our triggers and reactions, is an invaluable way to strengthen our intimate relationships. When my husband and I are snipping at each other and overall there’s a mood of discontent, I need to consider my role. Have I been taking moments throughout the day to connect with him, being present when we’re together, really listening? The answer usually is no, and the reason we aren’t getting along is because I haven’t been making deposits. Recommitting myself to showing him how much I love him, actively putting some deposits in our bank, allows our relationship get better, for each of us to be happier, after only a few days. We can self-correct our course before frustrations and resentments get to dangerous levels.
Conversely when we’re going through a rough patch, it because we’re each being selfish, not very caring and withdraws are flying out of our account. We keep arguing about the same things – kids, money, attention – and get more upset each time we have an unsuccessful conversation. Left with feelings of frustration and anger towards the other, it’s always tempting to lash out to make ourselves feel better. Yet if you can check yourself, you remember your bank, you acknowledge you’re a little poor right now. You take a deep breath and make the first deposit – maybe it’s a hug, an apology for your part. You diffuse the situation and actively work to put your relationship back on a positive path.
A few weeks ago, as I refereed one of the endless fights between my younger son and my daughter, I realized that the concept of a relationship bank, usually discussed in partner relationships, might be helpful to them. It’s hard for them right now, they’re stuck at home for virtual school and they’re close in age – my son is in eight grade, my daughter in sixth. By the time they finish their school days they’re both feeling isolated and bored. Hugely missing the social aspects of middle school and worn out by being in close quarters since March. When their at their dad’s house they’re also contending with a parent who’s usually busy working and tucked away in their office. So the arguments begin during breakfast or lunch, when they’re on their own, and escalate by dinner time, when their dad heads to the gym. Without a parent present to step in, tempers keep rising. They get physical, hitting, pushing and scratching each other, and they say hurtful things. Weaponizing the shaming words their dad uses and turning on each other.
Constantly drawing on my arsenal of wellness strategies, I will suggest ways they can calm down. We also talk a lot about how they’re feeling and make sure we address that first. Maybe they need a walk and knocking on a friend’s door for socially distanced outside time. Or time to journal or draw and express their feelings. Practice giving a name to their feelings and helping them learn to “feel their feelings”. All of these coping skills are invaluable, and I hope are the foundation of the life long wellness skills. Yet still they kept fighting, and I kept searching for ways to help them deescalate their conflict.
After one of our daily FaceTime calls, listening to my daughter cry about her brother and seeing my son’s eyes well up (his “tell” for getting to a saturation point of anger and frustration), I started casting about for more concrete ideas. Suddenly the relationship bank account popped into my head. Of course! No reason why it can’t work for siblings. A few days later the kids were back at my house. We all sat down and I began explaining the concept of a relationship bank. They understood! I knew my daughter would, she’s 11 going on 30, and very astute with recognizing and expressing feelings. But my son’s not only a 14 year old boy, but he’s on the autism spectrum. He struggles with some of the Aspergers-type challenges, especially reading social clues and understanding the subtlety of feelings. But the bank concept worked – not only was it concrete, but it was linear in a way that he understood.
Practice started right away. I would hear my son say something nice to my daughter and I would bring it to their attention, pointing out that he had made a deposit. We also talked about putting in more deposits at my house when I am there to support them and make sure they’re treating each other kindly. Meaning they would go back to their dad’s with a bank account full of deposits. Next we discussed how much easier it would be to practice tolerance and understanding when their bank account wasn’t depleted. Those deposits were proof that they could get along and treat each other nicely.
Their relationship bank has been opened for a few weeks now. Not only has it made a discernible difference in their relationship, but it’s given them another way to discuss their feelings and resolve conflict. They’re fighting less and slowly learning how to be more patient. Helping my children with these types of life skills is one of my favorite parts of being a mother. My greatest wish as they become adults is that they’re equipped with the skills to handle all types of situations. And when they’re faced with a challenge they don’t know how to navigate, they’ll be comfortable enough with an emotional vocabulary and skills, that they’ll find a solution.