COLUMN: How to balance emotional currency

Recently, I overheard someone saying that we should just lock up all the thieves.  “Once a thief, always a thief, right?”  Well, as a former director of counseling for a juvenile detention center, that did not sit well with me.  Now do not get me wrong, there should definitely be consequences for any degree of breaking the law.  However, if we locked up everyone and threw away the key, this would be a lonely place.  Actually a very empty place, because we are all thieves in some way.

After I got over the initial resentment for this statement, I began to look at it from a different view point.  The angle I usually retreat to is the relational or counselor’s point of view.  I started to look at how much theft I deal with in my counseling office on a daily basis.  And how much theft I witness in day to day life.  Not the type of theft that will land you behind bars, but the type that will kill a relationship.

Emotional theft can be more devastating than any shop lifting charge.  It can tear families apart, cause rebellion in children, drive a wedge between spouses, destroy partnerships, and deepen depression.  Right about now there are two types of people reading this article.  One is saying I do not do that, and the other is asking what I mean and how can I keep this as far from my relationship as possible.  Which one are you?

The best way I can describe a relationship is through emotional currency.  Our relationships are like a bank.  We have a certain amount of currency stored up in them.  We build that currency up through positive interactions with others throughout our relationships and life.  Every interaction you have with someone is either negative or positive.  There is no neutral, so you either make a withdrawal or a deposit.  That interaction might be a large deposit, a small withdrawal, or vise versa.  This is determined by how you feel about that interaction.  Did you get what you were looking for within that interaction, or did you come away lacking the satisfaction you needed?  This is a very simple way of looking at relationships and has been proven on many occasions to be accurate. 

The only problem is that we are all emotional thieves. We are many times more interested in transferring funds into our account.  We do not take into account that a deposit in our account has to come from somewhere.  When we make a deposit it means that someone else has made a withdrawal in their account.  This transaction is not unhealthy because we make them all the time.  It is the attitude and circumstance that we make them under that causes ill will within the relationship.  If we are out for what we can get from an interaction without concern of what it might cost that other individual, then we can overdraft our relational account with that person.

This happens so often in relationships that we begin to take it for granted.  We just expect or get in the habit of that person always being a comforter or confidant.  So we continue to make withdrawals from that person without investing back into the relationship.  Spouses tend to drift apart over time because of this behavior.  The best way to defend against overdrawing an account is by learning to set boundaries on how much you allow to be drafted and to always be aware of how much you have drafted without investing.  Sounds like simple personal finances 101, doesn’t it?  But just like we have millions of people who do not understand personal finances, we have many more that make the same mistake in relational finances.  Throw in the partner in the relationship that is stealing that currency without regard to how it hurts the other, and it makes balance in a relationship almost impossible.