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The couple in front of me is facing each other; he looks into her eyes and says sincerely, “I am so sorry. I really screwed up. You must have felt so hurt, unimportant and excluded.” He waits for her to nod and continues, “I am really sorry that I didn’t stand up and speak up to my family when they did this. I should have made it clear to them that you are my partner and that you come first. Can you forgive me?” She nods again, this time with tears in her eyes. He takes her hand and continues, “Let’s talk about how we can do this better next time. Let me share what was going on for me and let’s figure out how we can show up as a team.”
What is happening in this moment in their session with me? He is making amends for a regrettable incident. He delivers a sincere apology, taking responsibility for his part in an event and empathizes with the feelings his partner had. He also indicates that as a team they can figure out how to do better next time when they are in a similar situation. They both feel safe and connected in that moment. He shows with his tone and words that he cares about her and she gracefully accepts his apology and allows his words to touch her. They both leave the session feeling more loved than when they came in. Willard Harley would say, that my male client has just made a deposit into his account in his partner’s love bank.
Figuratively speaking, everyone has a Love Bank. It contains many different accounts, one for each person we know and are in a relationship with. Each person makes either deposits or withdrawals whenever we interact with him or her. Some of those accounts have a high balance, others are at zero or even in the minus.
We also have accounts in other people’s Love Banks. We have an account in our partner’s love bank and in every other person’s who we have a relationship with. The same rules apply to those accounts. We either make deposits into our account in their Love Bank or we withdraw “love units”, most of the time without even being aware of it.
When somebody is associated with our good feelings, “love units” are deposited into their accounts, and when they are associated with painful experiences which create unpleasant feelings, love units are withdrawn. The more painful the experiences are, the more likely it is that our nervous system responds to those people by triggering our natural fight, flight or freeze response. We feel defensive around them, want to run away or might feel paralyzed in their presence. We are emotionally attracted to people with positive balances and we tend to avoid those people with negative balances. This is the way nature encourages us to be with people who treat us well and seem safe, and avoid those who could potentially hurt us.
Obviously, the Love Bank is not a mathematically accurate concept. It is a concept to remind us that we all affect each other emotionally and trigger each other’s parasympathetic system into fight or flight. The emotional reactions we have toward people, whether attraction or fight/flight/freeze, is not a matter of choice. The primitive part of our brain, also known as the reptilian brain, reacts faster than our more advanced parts of the brain are able to respond, and it instinctively registers “safety” or “danger”. It associates people with either being safe for us or being a threat.
So simply put, we feel comfortable and safe with those people who have positive balances in our love bank and we dislike and avoid those with negative balances. It is important to know that—after the honeymoon period is over—relationship partners trigger threat cues in each other when stress and conflicts occur. How the couple deals with these triggers determines the longevity of the relationship.
A love relationship begins with the emotional account continuing to go up and reaching a certain high point. When that happens, a special emotional reaction is triggered: love. And if the other person happens to be from the gender we are sexually attracted to, we might feel romantic love. We no longer simply like the person, we love him or her.
So let me tell you a Love Bank Love Story to illustrate this idea further.
Let’s take Deborah and Robert. We will look at this concept from Deborah’s perspective but the same applies from Robert’s point of view. Deb and Rob meet at the birthday party of a mutual friend. Rob is funny and a good listener, he asks Deborah interested questions, and before they even go on their first date, Rob already deposits love bank units, let’s say 15, and thus his love bank account in Deb’s heart begins to grow. He asks for her phone number and two days later he calls her to ask her out for Sushi. He deposits another 10 units for calling in a timely manner and for remembering that she likes Sushi. On the date, they have a fabulous time. 20 more units are added to the love bank account. A second date at a cute little cafe is almost as good and that brings him another 15 units.
Then Deb doesn’t hear from Rob for a while. He doesn’t let her know that he is just busy with a project at work but that he thinks about her a lot. Deb is starting to wonder if he is really interested and he loses 15 units. However, that time passes and they date regularly and often. Deb has an opportunity to let Rob know that she appreciates open communication, for example when he is busy with work, and he listens, understands and does his best to change. By behaving that way, he deposited 20 units into the love bank.
Robert tends to close up when he feels emotional and pulling away from Deborah loses him units ever so often but overall, his balance rises. When he meets Deb’s five year old daughter, Lily, and turns out to be great with children, he wins 100 love units. After six months of dating, Rob’s balance in her bank stands at 1,000 love units. He has continuously deposited more units than withdrawn. At this point, Deb associates Rob with many positive experiences and only a few negative ones.
As they continue dating, not just Deb but also her daughter Lily become more and more attached to Robert and that scares him. Some of his friends have asked him if he is sure he wants to “take on somebody else’s child” and he suddenly experiences doubts. He tells Deborah that he needs some space to think and suggests to put their dating on hold for a bit. Deb feels discouraged and disappointed. 30 units come out of Rob’s account. During the next month, when they don’t see each other, units continuously come out of Rob’s account as Deb spends the month feeling upset, disappointed and vulnerable. Her nervous system is in high alert, warning her that it might not be safe to be in love with Rob. In total there is a debit of 200 units.
When Rob calls Deb again to let her know he wants to fully commit to her and her daughter, his balance is at 800 units but quickly rises over the next few weeks because he now has “two feet in”, which makes Deb feel safe. They spend more time together and Rob is very affectionate with Deb’s daughter. Another six months down the road, Rob’s account is at 1,500 units, an all time high for any guy Deborah was ever in a relationship with. She is deeply in love with Rob. When he proposes marriage, she accepts without hesitation.
The first year of their marriage is extremely happy and smooth. Rob is patient with Lily, he and Deb get enough romantic time alone when the grandparents babysit, his job goes well and all is fine. Rob and Deb automatically fulfill each others needs for affection, intimate conversations, fulfilling sexual encounters and support with Lily. The love bank accounts for both of them keep rising.
In their second year of marriage, stress enters the relationship. Lily’s father shows up on the scene and wants to be involved, Deborah’s mom has breast cancer and Deborah looks after her, and Rob’s boss at work changes and seems to have it out for Rob. Eventually Rob loses his job and Deborah is now supporting both of them. Deb feels overwhelmed and unappreciated.
Rob’s confidence is shattered through losing his job and not being able to find a new one right away. He is irritated and depressed most of the time. When he is angry, he triggers Deb’s flight response. And when she is worried, she triggers feelings of guilt and his fight response. He stops interacting with Lily, or initiating intimate conversations or romantic time with Deb, to make up for those moments of high arousal of the nervous system. His emotional account continuously drops with each day because they now have more stressful encounters that trigger each others protective parts into fight or flight.
Deb misses the intimate conversations and the practical support. At work, her colleague Peter helps her with her work load by offering to take on some of her tasks. He is also sympathetic as Deb shares about her mother’s breast cancer and her fear of losing her. His own mother passed away from cancer and he is a patient and supportive listener. He begins to check in with her every day to see how she is doing. They start going out for lunch. Deb is able to cry with Peter and to share how hard it is to be in a relationship with somebody who is depressed. Instead of Rob depositing love units in Deborah’s bank, Peter now deposits love units with each kind and thoughtful act.
Deb starts to wonder if she and Rob are “just not a good match.” Peter, on the other hand, seems to understand her so well. She becomes more and more emotionally attached to Peter and their daily lunches. Peter becomes the one she confides in and she thinks about during the day. She finds herself in an emotional affair with Peter which might lead into a physical one down the road if the love bank accounts become more unbalanced in favour of Peter.
Thankfully, Deb has a friend who has saved her own marriage by getting help from a professional. She warns Deb and suggests to her to do the same.
In the sessions with their couples coach, Deb and Rob learn the concept of the love bank, how they set each others fight/flight responses off, how to communicate uncomfortable emotions and address each others needs. Deb stops seeing Peter for lunch to give her marriage a real chance. As Rob learns to open up again, she is able to give him the encouragement he needs. And in return Rob, learns to acknowledge Deb’s contribution, to listen to her feelings and to help fulfill her needs. Their love bank accounts grow again over time and they turn their marriage back into a strong, fulfilling and supportive relationship, both being aware of the “deposits” and “withdrawals” we are all making each day.
Are you curious about the state of your love bank accounts? Couples coaching can be extremely helpful for a relationship. You are giving yourself the chance to learn new skills to deal with stress and conflicts. You will be asked to practice between sessions to incorporate the new learning. It is unavoidable that we trigger each others fight/flight/freeze response in conflicts, but we can learn to keep each other feeling as safe as possible by balancing out the painful withdrawals with moments of love and safety.
Contact me for more information on either couple’s coaching or individual sessions. We can work on your own triggers and patterns in individual sessions or on your interactions with each other.
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