- We can't stop bad moments from ever happening in relationships, but we can lessen their impact.
- Sharing positive moments with your partner builds "emotional capital."
- The more emotional capital you have in the bank, the more good you have to draw on when things go wrong.
In my last post, I took a look at the research on what couples fight about. Communication topped the list, but teaching couples how to communicate better isn’t the powerful tool researchers and clinicians thought it would be. Instead, it appears that it can be hard to change communication patterns in a meaningful way and poor communication seems to matter most when you are under stress and strain—the times when you are also most likely to communicate poorly and engage in fights.
One thing you can do is try to have more positive moments with your partner. Think of your relationship like a bank account, when you have positive experiences with your partner and feel good about your relationship, you are putting money in the bank (building up your “emotional” capital). When you fight with your partner and feel bad about your relationship, you are taking money out of the bank. The more you build up the positive moments, the more of a buffer you have against the negative ones. When your relationship bank account is full, a little fight will hardly make a dent in your feelings about your relationship. But if you have very few positive feelings and thus little in the bank, you have no good feelings left to draw from when you get into a fight.
Let’s say it is Monday morning and you are rushing to get out of the house. You make coffee but when you go to get the milk you see that your partner, once again, left an empty milk carton in the fridge and you are out of milk. How do you respond? There are likely to be grumbles involved, but how upset does this make you? Do you make a big deal out of it or let it go?
Your response is likely to depend on what came before the milk incident. Imagine you are coming off a wonderful weekend with your partner. You went on a date together to a new restaurant, met up with friends for a hike, cuddled up to watch your favorite movie, reminiscing about the first time you saw it together, and your partner even surprised you with breakfast and coffee in bed. There was a lot of laughter that reminded you of the early days of your relationship. In this case, you have a lot of positive feelings built up in your bank account and you are likely to get less upset about the milk incident. You might just grumble and then make a joke to your partner about needing to buy you a cow if this keeps up. If, instead, you had a stressful weekend and you and your partner barely spent time together or the time you did spend was not particularly pleasant, that milk carton might tip you over the edge and lead to a big fight about how inconsiderate and irresponsible your partner is.
Building off early work by John Gottman, Brooke Feeney and Edward Lemay call this the “Theory of Emotional Capital” and find evidence for it in two different studies of romantic couples. People who had greater emotional capital (that is, they had a partner who engaged in more positive behaviors such as saying “I love you,” being complimentary, and showing affection frequently) were happier with their relationships and less negative towards their partners after their partner behaved badly. Emotional capital helped buffer them from reacting badly in response to their partner’s bad behavior. Given how easy it is for one partner’s bad behavior to create a downward spiral (they forget to get more milk, you react so strongly they get upset at your reaction, you get upset at them for not understanding why it is important to you, and on and on), emotional capital might help stop something small from turning into something big.
How can you build up your emotional capital? Here are a few suggestions.
- Try something new with your partner. Novel and exciting experiences help us expand our sense of self and feel closer to our partners. One way to do this is to have an awe-inspiring experience together.
- Make your partner feel appreciated. Feeney and Lemay’s Emotional Capital items included: “Told me he/she was thinking about me,” “Looked at me in a loving way.” “Said thank you when I did something for him/her.” People who feel appreciated by their partners are more likely to be appreciative themselves, which can build up both of your emotional capital.
- Laugh together. “Made me laugh” was another item from their list and research suggests laughter is beneficial. Find a great comedy or reminisce about silly snafus you experienced together in your past.
- Compliment your partner. When was the last time you told your partner something you really like about them? Thanks to hedonic adaptation, we get used to the good things in our lives, especially our romantic partners. And even when we do recognize good things, we don’t always take the time to say them out loud.
- Listen to your partner. At the most basic level, many of us just want to feel understood. It’s easy when you are busy to feel like there isn’t time to just sit and talk. But taking just five minutes to ask your partner what is going on with them (and really paying attention to their answer), might save you time in the long run by helping your partner feel cared about and understood.