The Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library” (s4e09) contains a fascinating demonstration of Emotional Bank Accounts. Professor River Song calls the Doctor for help. Without knowing who sent the message, he cancels a trip to the beach to help her.
River knew the Doctor. She trusted him with her life. With everything. She would follow him to the end of the universe—and they had been there together. They were both time-travellers, who built a relationship despite meeting each other out of sequence. There, in the Library, the Doctor was just meeting River. He didn’t know her yet, didn’t know if he could trust her.
She had an incredible balance on file from him. He had no record of any deposits she had made. To survive, she needed him to be more than the Doctor. She needed him to be her Doctor. How do you establish a lifetime of deposits into an emotional bank account like that? Especially without spoilers?
Every time we do something that builds trust and respect, we make a deposit into our account with that person. Our relationship gets stronger.
Building up an account takes time—repeated, consistent behavior. One action here, one word there. Slowly, gradually, the balance increases.
Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to make withdrawals. We break a commitment. We say something we wish we could take back. We resort to using our position to get what we want. (Parents, how often do you tell your children, “because I said so”?) When we make a mistake, we make a withdrawal. Doing everything we can to make it right may not restore the balance right away, but it can at least stop the decline.
Having a strong relationship bank account balance can serve just like having an emergency fund. The unexpected happens. “Because I said so” has to suffice for now. These are still withdrawals, but if the balance is high enough, we don’t overdraft the account. They’re willing to cut us some slack because we have a history of making deposits.
Similarly, if we have a history of overdrafting the account, it’s going to take more than one or two deposits to change the relationship.
Deposits into a relationship’s bank account need to be in that person’s currency. The exchange rate is terrible. If you try to build the relationship by focusing on what’s important to you instead of them, you’re probably going to make things worse.
Every interaction with a person is either a deposit or a withdrawal. The more frequent the interaction with someone—like coworkers, or your family—the more we need to make deposits into the account. We can meet up with an old college buddy and talk about the good old days, but your wife won’t be content with the flowers you bought her six years ago.
The emotional bank account represents how far you’re willing to go to help someone. How much slack you’ll cut them when they make a withdrawal. How much you will rearrange your schedule to make room for them. How much you will sacrifice for them.
Who would you travel across time and space to help? More importantly, who would call you from another time, another world, for help, knowing you would come?