Hi! My name is Maria Perozzi, LMFT. I’m one of the new therapists here at Group Therapy Associates. I’m quite excited to be writing my first article for GTA. For those who already work with me, you know I love explaining concepts and situations using analogies. It’s one of the ways my brain makes sense of things and I enjoy sharing these ideas with those stepping into my office. One of my most favorite is the relationship bank account…
Money. We can all relate to it, right? You’ve got your bank account where you deposit and withdraw your funds. The goal is to keep a positive balance and make more than you spend. What happens if you attempt to withdraw more than you’ve got in your account? Bounce! Penalties and probably some not-so-pleasant feelings follow your “insufficient funds” notice. We can also think about our relationships in this context. I’ll be talking about romantic relationships in this article, but the analogy stands for the relationships with our parents, children, friends, colleagues, and even ourselves.
Just like with your real bank account, the balance starts off neutral. Then the happenings in the relationship equate to deposits and withdrawals that effect the balance.
So how do we make deposits? Think of them as all the good stuff you’re putting into your relationship—love, trust, affection, connection, empathy, kindness, clear communication—the list could go on and on, really. While we love big monetary deposits into our account, the ones in our relationship don’t have to be so grand all the time. The deposits can be as small as a squeeze of the shoulder as you pass by your partner in the kitchen. They can be as mundane as joining your partner to help fold laundry or rake leaves. They can be as casual as asking about the book the other is reading. The little things are meaningful and should not be overlooked. The idea is consistent positive cash flow, no matter the size.
Like our real bank accounts, we’ve got money in them because we need it to spend on things. Our relationship deposits disappear as they get spent and require constant replenishing. Just like you’ve got to keep a paycheck coming to continue paying your bills, you’ve got to keep working to have that income.
What do I mean by withdrawals from the account? Things that take away, things that cost us—arguments, criticism, misunderstandings, hurting the other’s feelings, shutting down, stress, etc. These things are nearly unavoidable in relationships, just like paying bills. It’s not something that’s particularly enjoyable, but it’s a necessary hardship nonetheless. Your relationship can withstand these withdrawals, however, if you’ve got plenty from which to deduct. There may also be some withdrawals that feel catastrophic—affairs, major breaches in trust, loss, trauma, etc. These can leave couples reeling from debt and desperate to find resolve. That can be a real struggle to weather if the account is pretty low prior to the withdrawal.
No Need for a Ledger
With our monetary accounts, we keep a record of all transactions. I do not recommend doing that in your relationship! There is no need for a ledger as it’s a form of scorekeeping, which has no healthy value in a relationship. Unfortunately, scorekeeping is a common trap in most relationships. We tend to tally the ways we are giving and how our partner is not. “I’m always the one to empty the dishwasher.” “Why am I the only one who is getting up with the baby at 3am?” “It would be nice if you would initiate sex for once.” It’s natural to notice when you are doing more of something in the relationship, but resentment will likely build.
Scorekeeping is “me-centered” rather than “we-centered.” If you’re counting all the times where you are ahead in a certain action or task, your partner can only be in one place—behind. This fosters a sense of “not enough” and a tendency to view things negatively. This creates an adversarial situation where you can quickly lose sight of the idea that you and your partner are on the same team. The singular solution to this is simple: give for the love of giving. Do it because it makes things run smoother. If you still find yourself noticing the things you believe you’re doing more of, challenge yourself to find something true for your partner. “Yes, I do tend to initiate sex most of the time, but my partner plans our dates most of the time.” “Yes, I am the one who is usually up with the baby in the middle of the night and my partner is usually the one handling sick days.” “Yes, I do empty the dishwasher a lot and my partner does all the vacuuming.”
Then how do you know the balance? You won’t ever know a specific numeric amount, but you’ll have a general sense of whether your relationship is in the negative.
Balancing the Checkbook
What happens when you and your partner are withdrawing more than you are depositing? You’re in the red. You may find yourself in a highly challenging and unsatisfying place. Arguments are happening more frequently, discord becomes the norm, you find yourselves losing sight of the good things in the relationship, and you are likely making fewer and fewer deposits. It’s simply not sustainable.
If you and your partner are committed to getting out of relationship debt, the issue is workable. Together, you can identify issues/behaviors contributing to your relationship bank account and work toward getting you back to a positive balance. This could include improving communication and conflict resolution skills, repairing trust, increasing emotional/physical intimacy, and an array of other things. If doing this on your own seems a bit overwhelming, it could be useful to see a therapist. Just like you might consult a financial advisor when you’re having monetary troubles, a therapist can help you figure out how to get your relationship spending in order, and get your account back on track.