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My immigrant parents were raised in economies of scarcity, so now they cannot pass up a deal, and they also now live one block from Costco.  This is a bad combination.  Costco’s sale products inevitably end up in my parents’ home, stored up in their garage, on their counters, under the dining table, and in spare bedrooms.

When the COVID-19 related shelter-in-place quarantine caused people to panic and buy up toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and food supplies, my dad proudly stated he already had everything.  Plus more.  Congratulations, I said.


I have often argued with my parents to stop buying stuff they don’t need.  But to their point, I’m nearing the end of my toilet paper stock and they have plenty (we do not live locally or I’d take some of theirs).  These days, as I’m scouring the internet for toilet paper that is not out of stock, I can see their point in storing up and creating a surplus. Each day reduces my meager store of essentials.


Emotional Bank Accounts

A renowned social researcher by name of John Gottman applied this concept of surplus and deficit to relationships.  He coined the idea an “emotional bank account[1]” to explain how investing into our relationships can be seen as a series of deposits and withdrawals.

Deposits vs. Withdrawals from our Emotional Bank Account


Making bids for connection and responding to those bids are both deposits.  Turning towards someone when they walk in the door, putting down our phones and making eye connection while asking how their day was, putting a hand on the other’s shoulder, smiling in response, these are deposits into the emotional bank account.


When, however, we are short with our partner, or don’t look up from our phones, or speak sharply or criticize, these are all withdrawals from our emotional bank account.  Gottman’s forty years of research shows that it takes five deposits into our emotional bank accounts to balance the impact of one emotional withdrawal.

When a couple is faced with a crisis of any sort (eg., infidelity, work and life not balancing, in-law pressures, unprecedented pandemics, etc.) then that account suffers large, devastating withdrawals. This is when we need a serious surplus of positive deposits in our emotional bank accounts to weather any catastrophic downturns.


As I watch the tumultuous stock market react to the coronavirus pandemic, I realize with perfect hindsight I should have been depositing steadily along the way to create sufficient surplus to cushion this sudden downturn.   A smart investor applies the power of dollar-cost averaging over the lure of finding a hot stock pick.  A person investing in a healthy relationship will make steady deposits, even if small, over the large flashy and rare gestures.

Making coffee for the other person.  Putting the phone down and asking about their day.  Listening rather than tuning out.  Turning toward, rather than turning against. It took John Gottman forty years of research to find out what we kind of know, deep inside:  that a lasting relationship is not something one finds or doesn’t find.

A relationship that will last isn’t just something one finds or doesn’t find.  It’s something one invests in, and builds, by putting in regular deposits of attentive kindness, day after day.

But the sum total of our deposits, put in day after day, must be greater than the sum total of our withdrawals.

By building up a surplus in our emotional bank account.  By understanding that withdrawals happen; we can argue, disagree, do something inconsiderate at times, it happens of course.

But the sum total of our deposits, put in day after day, must be greater than the sum total of our withdrawals.  Otherwise when the large withdrawals happen, we are not caught, pants down, without toilet paper. Sometimes, parents really do know best.



About the Author

Alice Wu-Cardona is an Licensed Therapist (LCSW) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In her words, “Offering a safe place to talk, think, and feel, and a collaborative presence with whom to sift through it all.”

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