When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me. The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about. When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person. When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment. If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person. For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.
It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage. I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again. Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection. Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.
I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back. I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly. Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.
What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up. They want to apologize and have it all go away. To a certain extent, I can understand that: admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable. Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple. And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time. No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up. It’s mean and unfair to expect.
BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance. And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss. If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it. But if my feelings are hurt? If I’m disappointed in you? If I feel unspecial or taken for granted? Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels. I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that. Some tender TLC. A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you. No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures. No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things. Call me a little more often the next day. Hold my hand more. Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings. Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.
And watch your love bank account balance take off.
I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort. A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment. It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.
I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs. I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself. And what I have learned is this: sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.
When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel. Sometimes this is really, really hard to do. But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right. I want to take that pain away and help them feel better. That experience is empathy.
Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far. What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.
Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship. She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt. After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation. But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers. Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it. At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry. Now I realize how it must have felt for you.” And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.
In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships. We all screw up. We do things that hurt the people that we love. But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most. Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable? Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?
I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them. But I think those people are few and far between. Most of us want to get over things. We want to give people another chance. We want to make our relationships better.
We want our love banks to be full.