How to Invest in Healthy Relationships

Nov 14, 2022
Relationship Bank Account

Understanding your relationship bank account and how to keep your balance high can keep your relationships healthy. Be sure to make regular investments into your relationships and minimize withdrawals.


Few things matter more in determining the quality of your life than your relationships. It's not just who you surround yourself with but also how you invest in those relationships that matters. Yes, finding your people is a critical mission, but what do you do once you've found them to ensure that your relationships stay strong, positive, and healthy?


Your Relationship Bank Account

Visualize a piggy bank for each of your relationships. Each positive interaction is like a dropping a nickel in, and each negative interaction is like taking out a quarter. You've got to keep your piggy bank full.

I'm not suggesting that we should view relationships in a transactional way - what can we give and take from each other - but I am proposing that we consider each and every interaction as either a deposit or debit in the relationship account. Each action, each word, each nonverbal piece of communication adds to or detracts from the health of the relationship.


Making Deposits and Withdrawals in Your Relationship Bank Account 

Ideally, your relationship piggy bank is just about full to the brim. But did you ever have that experience as a kid where you were shaking your piggy bank, trying to get that last dime out of it? You could hear that sole coin sadly rattling around inside. That's what happens to some of our relationships, even the really important ones, if we're not careful. That's because our relationship bank accounts can easily get overdrawn. 


Relationship Deposits 

Any positive interaction is a deposit. These interactions might range from doing something nice for that person to giving them a compliment, praise, or expression of appreciation. It might be laughing together, smiling at them, displaying affection. It could be celebrating a win together (e.g., one of my all-time favorite ways is the Top Gun high five!) or having a shared enjoyable experience. It may be providing support when they feel vulnerable, being a shoulder to lean on, or pushing them to see just how great they can be. There are so many ways to make deposits, from pennies of positive to connection to windfall sums in the form of major moments. They all count.


Relationship Withdrawals

Any negative interaction, big or small, is a debit on your relationship bank account. From the costly betrayals or disappointments to the obviously negative arguments to the seemingly minor passive aggressive "jokes" and disapproving or exasperated looks, all negative interactions exact a toll. Even the on the surface neutral seeming interactions, such as indifference or ignoring, can be a hit to your relational balance. 

Conflict is inevitable. In even the most healthy, secure relationship between two highly compatible people, there will invariably come a time when things aren't aligned, when someone is hurt or disappointed, or when the interaction somehow becomes negative. There's no way to avoid that altogether. Relationships with a big balance of goodwill can take the hit without venturing into the red. If funds are running low, though, these inevitable withdrawals can put the relationship into dangerous territory.


Balancing Your Relationship Bank Account

Here's the kicker when it comes to your relationship bank account balance...deposits and withdrawals are not created equal. Withdrawals outweigh deposits big time. The easiest way is to think about it is that each deposit is worth, say, $1 while each debit is worth $5. Yes. Negative interactions have a much bigger impact than positive ones. 

Our brains have a built in negativity bias that makes them more readily notice and remember bad stuff compared to good, and that's probably the main reason why relational withdrawals have a bigger impact than deposits. 

This imbalance is incredibly important to keep in mind because it highlights the importance of regularly, consistently investing in your key relationships. If you're not continually replenishing the reserves and building up your balance, your relationship is going to get into critical territory quickly. 

You may have heard the advice that you need to offer 5 praises or positive comments for every correction or criticism when it comes to parenting. It's not just good advice for parents, though. It applies in romantic relationships and in business as well. Couples and companies that have a healthy positive to negative ratio (3:1 or 5:1, depending on who you ask) have better outcomes, whether we're talking stronger relationships, greater happiness and satisfaction, or higher bottom lines. Your relationship bank account matters. 


The Little Things Add Up

It's easy to think about the big deposits and withdrawals when it comes to relationships - the grand gestures, the big fights. But the health of a relationship is actually determined much more by the little day-to-day things.

It's the small things that don't necessarily even register as poring into or withdrawing from your relationship that make or break things. Think of it like the round ups feature on investment apps like Acorns or the banks that automatically put the spare change from purchases into your savings account. You barely notice these cents in the moment, but they add up over time and can compound. Similarly, that autorenewing $2.99 fee for something you're not even sure about that keeps coming out of your account each month (you mean to figure it out, but you keep putting it off) or the few bucks you drop daily on that coffee or treat adds up, especially if there's enough of them over a long enough time. 

The Gottmans, two psychologists who have studied couples for about four decades and are essentially THE gurus in the psychology world, say it's all about small things often. They have a handy framework for understanding the little ways you're contributing to and deducting from your relationship bank account. They focus on what they call bids for attention, and we can extend their concept well beyond just intimate partner relationships.

A bid for attention is your person's (partner, child, friend, co-worker) attempt to capture your attention to share something with you, creating a tiny positive experience and moment of connection. Now, most people are't running around consciously thinking, "I'm going to make a bid for attention now." Instead, it's just how we naturally interact.

Bids for attention can be little things like making eye contact and sharing "that" look, squeezing their shoulder when you walk past, exclaiming "That's hilarious!" or "I had a great (or terrible) day!"  or "look at this" or big things like trying to initiate plans or affection. Whatever it is, no matter how big or obvious it is, how we respond to those bids has a giant impact on the health of the relationship.


Turning Toward Bids for Attention

Simply put, turning toward a bid means acknowledging it and accepting it in a generally positive way. This makes a deposit into your account. Do this. Often.

Not all turning toward moves are the same, though. A passive "That's cool" is a much smaller investment than "That's cool [said with eye contact and enthusiasm]! Tell me everything!" The more active and engaged the turning toward is, the better.


Turning Away from Bids for Attention

Turning away from a bid means ignoring it. It's like your person threw a ball to you, and you didn't even make an attempt to catch it. Maybe you didn't see the ball, it caught you off guard and you weren't able to react in time to catch it, or maybe you willfully watched it come toward you and hit the ground, with no effort on your part to even try to catch it. Regardless, the result is the same. Turning away from a bid for attention is a relationship withdrawal.

Turning away is not always intentional. Often this results from simply missing the bid, not recognizing that your person is attempting to connect with you. On the other hand, it could be intentional.

If you consciously or subconsciously deem their bid as unimportant or dumb, you might dismiss it. And while it might be dumb or unimportant to you (maybe they're trying to share something funny with you, and you just do not find it entertaining), you're missing what's underneath. Underneath the bid, your person is saying "I want to connect in some way." Turning away taxes your relationship.


Turning Against Bids for Attention

Turning against a bid for attention means blatantly rejecting it. It might be pulling away from a touch, flat out declining an invitation, or making a negative comment. These sound harsh, and they can be, but the toll might not actually be as high as turning away. At least here, there's still a chance to engage, work it out, and end somewhere positive. 


Sneaky Relationship Damages

Besides becoming more tuned in and responsive to small bids for attention and making conscious efforts to regularly and proactively invest in relationships, watching out for unintended but avoidable withdrawals can be beneficial. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but here are two ubiquitous habits that take a toll.


Unintended Criticism

You mean well when you tell someone what they should do or should've done. You're trying to help. You might even think that you're making a relationship deposit by showing that you care, being involved, and offering unsolicited advice. In reality, though, this should lands as a criticism to the recipient, which is a debit. Refrain from shoulding on someone unless they've specifically asked for it.


Your Cell Phone

I'm not hating on cell phones. They are valuable and entertaining tools. But please, please put it away or at least silence notifications during certain times.

Cell phones steal our attention. Every time we get an alert, it pulls our attention, even if only momentarily. But that shift in attention means you're not attending to your person, and they'll feel it. I'm sure you can relate. Have you ever felt disconnected or, worse, like what you're saying isn't important to someone who was looking at their phone? Maybe their face was buried in their screen or maybe you noticed their eyes dart down to their phone or watch. Both sting, it's just a matter of degrees. There's even research suggesting that having your phone visible makes the other person feel icky, even if you don't touch it. So make a point to put it away so it doesn't make sneaky withdrawals on your relationship.

Just like it's important to invest in your savings account for unexpected expenses that may come up, having a buffer in your relationship bank account protects you from the inevitable unexpected ruptures. So build up that rainy day fund. Make deposits often.  Acknowledge and turn toward their bids. Invest in the people and relationships that matter to you.


"Make deposits by creating and building on positive moments...Emotional savings will serve as a cushion when times get tough."
- John Gottman


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder


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