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Are you overdrawn?

August 01, 2010

Marriage researcher John Gottman tells us that the happiest couples are the ones who make five times as many deposits as withdrawals from their marital (relationship) bank account.

What do they deposit? Words of admiration and appreciation, and goodwill gestures that express love, thoughtfulness and interest.

For example, preparing your wife her favorite meal or sending your husband a supportive email before a big meeting — these are positive deposits into your marital bank account. A big account balance is important because it cushions the impact of inevitable withdrawals: criticisms, impatience, behaviors we later regret. An excess of withdrawals — too many negatives without a fat cushion of positives — will overdraw your account and leave your relationship in the red.

Why does Gottman urge a five-to-one ratio? It seems that negative withdrawals leave a bigger impact than positive deposits when measured against one another. We humans tend to remember what's negative longer than we remember what's positive; one critical remark to a spouse often seems to carry a bigger punch than one compliment. That's why it takes so many more positives than negatives to keep the marital bank account from getting overdrawn.

Here are some ways to build up your marital bank account:

  1. Be generous with the compliments — for a job well done, the look of a new haircut, the skillful way of handling the children or in-laws or difficult neighbor next door.
  2. Tell your friends, with your spouse listening, about something you admire that he or she did. Singing your honey's praises in front of an audience might cause his cheeks to blush, but it feeds the bank account in a very big way.
  3. Look for ways to do your spouse a favor — to go to some trouble for him or her apart from your customary tasks and responsibilities — and don't wait to be asked.
  4. Offer the kind of gesture that comes easily during the courtship period: an unexpected card or bouquet, the loving touch of your hand at her neck, the surprise of tickets to a special event. Gestures like these carry a particular punch when they occur not on milestones like birthdays or anniversaries, but when they're unexpected.