Emotionally Intelligent Relationships: Part 3

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

Leading life coach, Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of a bank account to describe emotional closeness and trust in intimate relationships. A deposit is made each time you share a moment of connection with your partner, or when you enjoy each others company or when you simply listen to one another. A withdrawal is made each time you do not listen to what your partner says, or when you criticise or are negative or if either of you feels let down by the other.

Sometimes we make major deposits in our relationship bank accounts – for example when you do something special that matters a lot to someone, and sometimes we make major withdrawals – for example when let someone down on an issue of importance for them.

Covey argues that the key to happy relationships is to make sure you are always in credit and never overdrawn! All relationships involve conflict, or are under strain from time to time and what helps couples get through these difficult moments is the quality of their relationship.

To use the banking metaphor, strains and conflicts can be significant withdrawals from our relationship and need to be compensated by regular and frequent positive deposits.

This concept has resonance with recent research into relationships. Marriage and relationship researcher, John Gottman estimates that the ratio of positive to negative experiences in relationships needs to be about five to one to ensure happiness and satisfaction – this means that we have to find ways of making many more deposits than withdrawals in our relationship bank account with our partner. Gottman argues that it is during the nitty-gritty of everyday life that making such positive connections in relationships matter most.

During his studies, the research team closely observed hundreds of couples in their everyday interaction and they found a very interesting pattern that was linked to levels of contentment in the relationship. Rather than grand gestures it was simple everyday connections that seemed to make the difference.

A typical pattern might be as follows, one person might be reading the newspaper when their partner might approach them and ask a question like ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ or ‘Have you seen where the magazine is?’. The person has a number of choices in how they respond, such as looking up and taking a moment to answer the question or rolling their eyes and snapping that they are busy or simply ignoring and not responding at all.

Unsurprisingly, it is only the first response which benefits the relationship with the other two having a negative effect. The couples who tended to more regularly respond to their partners request for attention were the ones who were most content.

Of course this does not mean that you have to always positively respond to your partner request for attention but it is the frequency and accumulation of these small acts of consideration and attention that make the difference.

If you ignore or respond negatively to an initiative from them, then you better be sure there are many other times you respond positively to compensate to ensure they feel happy and content in the relationship.

This might all seem like common sense and easy to do, especially for people who feel their relationship is going well at the moment. However, this all becomes harder when your relationship is under strain or when you become disconnected from your partner. When our relationship is under strain we tend to interpret simple requests from our partner in a negative light.

For example, if they ask us to do something such as making the tea when we are busy we think ‘Can’t they see I am busy?’ or ‘Why do I always have to make the tea? or ‘Why are they so selfish?’ – this of course leads us to respond negatively or even not at all.

It is at these difficult times that learning to respond positively and turning towards our partner matters the most and makes the most difference. Often this requires us to shift our thinking and to see our partners requests for attention as something positive or in the best possible light. We need to remind ourselves that it is always best to focus on attending to the relationship first and arguing about the issue or request second.

It is the couples who stayed positively connected in the everyday or who can reconnect positively after a row usually in a simple ordinary way, who possess the skills of making their relationship successful and happy in the long term.

Rather than grand gestures of love, it seems that it is the small simple and daily acts of care and consideration, kindness and attention that make the most difference to the quality of our relationships. Couples who learn to relate positively and attend to one another in the nitty-gritty of everyday life are the ones who are most successful and happy.

In simple terms, listening to your partner’s day or acknowledging their feelings, displaying kindness are more important than expensive gifts or gestures that might come too late after a long period of neglect.

1. What matters most
Each person is unique. What really matters to one person in a relationship is different from person to person. (e.g. for one partner being on time is really a big deal and a sign of respect, for another this might not be such an issue at all). Using the bank account metaphor, what counts as a positive deposit in a relationship for one person is different for another. Think about:

What are the important things for your partner in your relationship?

What daily things between you mean a lot to them?

How can you make sure to do these more frequently?

2. The power of attention
It is usually simple acts of care and consideration, kindness and attention that lead to happy and successful relationships. By making sure we respond when it matters, we can transform our relationship.

Notice the amount of times your partner makes a request for your attention.
When/ where/ how does this happen?

In particular note how many times you respond positively and attentively. Now make an effort to increase the number of times you respond positively.

Continue this for one week and note how you both feel differently about the relationship at the end of the week.

3. Establishing a daily connection
Ensuring you connect on a daily basis is key to maintaining good relationships. Relationships suffer when we stop sharing everyday news and details and perhaps start telling other people instead. This often happens if we are tired or busy with work or for other reasons and it takes a bit of effort to reverse it.

Make sure you have a daily chatting time with your partner as part of your routine that you keep sacred.

When something significant happens to you or when have good or bad news, make a point of always telling your partner first and ensuring they are the first person to hear about it.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every second Tuesday.

Read Part 1 and 
Part 2  of this series on relationships.