We’ve all heard about saving up for a vacation, new car, school, etc., but have you heard about saving up for your relationships? I’m not talking about money here but emotional capital or positive emotional investment into one’s relationships. These positive emotional investments can take many forms such as expressions of love, engaging in fun activities together, compliments, and more…

The idea here is that every relationship, romantic and friendship, has an “emotional bank account” composed of the positive shared experiences (emotional capital) between relationship partners. The Theory of Emotional Capital posits that those who have mutually made many positive deposits into their relationship’s emotional bank account will be less affected by potential relationship threats because their built emotional capital serves as an emotional buffer such that they are unlikely to feel like their account is “overdrawn” (1). 

Researchers have investigated this Theory of Emotional Capital to try and answer the question of why some relationships survive adversity and threat while others do not. One study which focused on both newlywed and established married couples, using daily diary and observational methods respectively, found that individuals with high emotional capital were less reactive to relationship threats than those with low emotional capital (1)–those who made deposits into their relationship’s emotional bank account were less affected by relationship threats. 

But thinking about how these emotional capital deposits take time to accrue, what does this mean for relationships that are in earlier stages? Researchers have narrowed in on the role of emotional capital during the early years of marriage; Walsh et al. 2017 conducted a longitudinal study of newlywed couples using three fourteen-day daily diary tasks assessing emotional capital, negative partner behaviors, and marital satisfaction over a three year period. Interestingly, the researchers found that emotional capital on a given day was not associated with reactivity to relationship threats on the following day. However, individuals who accumulated more emotional capital on average across the three-year period did exhibit lower reactivity to daily relationship threats i.e. on days with greater relationship threats (negative partner behaviors), spouses with chronic emotional capital maintained greater marital satisfaction (2). These results suggest that emotional capital and its buffering effects are time-dependent, so it is important to start saving now!

Shared experiences that are not positive (think an experienced stressor) does not constitute emotional capital, but positive shared experiences can emerge from negative life events such as when a partner expresses support and love to the other in times of stress. Positive responses to broader life events are crucial in relationships as researchers have found that chronic negative expressivity undermines partner responsiveness to negative disclosures (3). Across five studies, Forest et al. 2014 observed that partners are less responsive to negative disclosures made by disclosers perceived to have high negativity baselines, so I encourage you to be positive in your relationships and support your relationship partners when they disclose negatively. 

In all, emotional capital plays an important role in dealing with relationship threats and developing closeness with another person, so make your emotional capital deposits with those that you care about!

  1. Feeney, B. C., & Lemay, E. P., Jr. (2012). Surviving relationship threats: The role of emotional capital. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1004–1017. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212442971
  2. Walsh, C. M., Neff, L. A., & Gleason, M. E. J. (2017). The role of emotional capital during the early years of marriage: Why everyday moments matter. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(4), 513–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000277.supp (Supplemental)
  3. Forest, A. L., Kille, D. R., Wood, J. V., & Holmes, J. G. (2014). Discount and disengage: How chronic negative expressivity undermines partner responsiveness to negative disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(6), 1013–1032. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038163

5 Replies to “Making Deposits in Your Emotional Bank Accounts

  1. Great points!! I love how you narrowed it down to look at the Theory of Emotional Capital for marriages at an early stage and found evidence that echoes Feeny & Lemay (2012). I also thought the connection you drew between emotional capital and partner responsiveness in adverse events is particularly interesting. I wonder if emotional capital would buffer the effect of negativity expressivity on partner responsiveness!

  2. Great post! I find it very interesting that positive support during negative experiences can also act to increase emotional capital in one’s relationship, while in the Gable study it discussed how supporting your partner in response to a stressor can signal to your partner that they are not capable of handling it themselves, and how invisible support is much better in these types of situations. I wonder if invisible support in these scenarios is also better for building emotional capital as well.

  3. I really liked the look at significance that emotional capital holds on both long-term and short-term relationships! I am a bit curious as to why stressors don’t hold the same weight as positive experiences, though, as both presumably serve to bound the partners together in some sense. Might there be an association that is formed between the relationship and negativity if positive emotional capital is not accumulated, that may be reinforced by relationship threats? Just something I was wondering about, but you’ve written a very informative piece!

  4. Love this post! It’s so interesting the idea that you have to start saving on emotional capital in order to maintain the best buffering effects! I never thought of relationship satisfaction being linked to a storing mechanism. I wonder what the best way to obtain a good standing in a relationship bank would be?

  5. The article on the buffering effects of emotional capital is very interesting! I wonder if these emotional capital stores apply in the same manner to different types of relationships (e.g. parent-child or between friends). I also wonder what it takes for a relationship to reach its “breaking point” and how that relates to emotional capital.

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