THE LOVE TANK THEORY: HOW TO MAKE LOVE ACTUALLY LAST
- “Our relationship is emotionally dead.”
- “We never talk anymore.”
- “My partner is distant, and we never have any fun.”
My inbox is full of emails like this.
These couples often ask, “How did we get here?”
Have you ever had that thought about your relationship?
Lasting love is like taking a lifelong road trip. Many of us get lost during our journey. Maybe we take a wrong turn by saying something mean, and in our own hurt we avoid making an attempt to turn back around to get on the correct road. Eventually, our relationship runs out of gas and we become stranded.
The absence of loving moments of connection may lead you to check into what Dr. Gottman calls the Roach Motel for Lovers. It’s a nasty place where conflict goes unrepaired, you feel emotionally abandoned, and you consistently become so emotionally flooded that it becomes impossible to resolve your issues.
The Empty Love Tank
The heart of practically all relationship distress is not conflict, but rather a lack of connection.
Dr. Sue Johnson argues that hostility, criticism, and demands are really cries for emotional connection.
Dr. Gottman’s research highlights how couples with lasting and happy relationships have a strong friendship, intimately know each other, and have more positive moments of connection than negative.
- 20 positive moments to every negative moment outside of conflict
- 5 positive moments to every negative moment during a conflict
Attachment research advocates for a secure emotional connection as vital to our happiness, self-esteem, and personal development. This is true in our childhood as well as in our adulthood.
To check this, ask yourself: What is the cruelest punishment in the world?
The answer is solitary confinement; complete disconnection from other humans.
As humans, we are wired to connect with other people and when we are disconnected, we suffer immensely. We feel empty, lonely, and broken.
This is why we must learn how to get the love we need and how to give the love our partner needs.
Your Relationship’s Love Tank
In Dr. Gary Chapman’s popular book, The Five Love Languages, he writes that every person has a Love Tank. I would like to propose that every relationship has its own Love Tank.
A couple’s Love Tank is filled by the frequency of emotional connections and is drained by the ways a couple disconnects.
In your daily life, there are events that fill up your Love Tank. These include emotional and physical affection, your partner asking about your day, helping out with laundry, and weekly dates. Your partner’s Love Tank also gets filled up in ways that are sometimes similar, sometimes different.
There are also events that empty your Love Tank such as work stress, an unresponsive partner, conflict that doesn’t get resolved, broken trust, a lack of affection, and other forms of disconnection that drain your energy. Some incidents drain your Love Tank faster than others.
Some events that empty our Love Tank may be negative at first, but can actually improve a relationship over time. Conflict is a great example. You may have a difficult argument that is stressful and tense, but the end result is a greater amount in the Love Tank than the initial amount drained. You actually learned how to love your partner better and they learned how to love you better—that produces connection to refill your Love Tank.
During this conflict, you may have resolved an important issue which will bring you closer and create a deeper sense of we-ness. These events may have a positive result in the end, but are still outputs that require inputs, such as a repair, to deepen a romantic bond and fill up a relationship’s Love Tank.
The positive moments of connection must exceed the negative moments of connection to maintain a full Love Tank. Dr. Gottman’s research also validates how negative moments drain a Love Tank faster than positive moments fill it up.
The Golden Locket Story
In Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s workshop, John shares a story of a husband who doesn’t ask his wife a question for 5 years. When she asked for help around the house, he avoided her request and continued working on his “project” in the garage. At dinner with friends, she went to share a story and he interrupted her, saying, “You suck at telling stories, let me share.”
Then on her birthday, he bought her a golden locket. What do you think she did with this locket?
She smashed it on his workbench with a hammer!
Not because the locket isn’t a sweet gesture, but because he missed the million little opportunities to fill up her Love Tank before he gave her the locket.
Our daily decisions to emotionally connect or disconnect influence both our partner’s Love Tank and our own. Even a little leak in our Love Tank, when unrepaired, can result in significant loss of love over time.
In extreme cases, like the couples who are on the brink of divorce, their Love Tank has been leaking for years, sometimes even decades.
It’s also vital to recognize that disconnection is something you’re dealing with even when your relationship is doing okay. The stress of daily life, the inescapable stresses of loving a person who is different from you, and working through conflict, including parenting the little ones, all add up.
Keeping Your Love Tank Full
Lucky for you and me, we can continually fill up our relationship’s Love Tank by intentionally loving each other every day.
As Dr. Sue Johnson says, “Love is a constant process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing and finding deeper connection. It’s a dance of meeting and parting and finding each other again. Minute-to-minute and day-to-day.”
You have two options:1
- Refill and repair your Love Tank on a daily basis. That means intentionally reconnecting, listening to each other’s happy and difficult emotions, being supportive, and making time for the relationship.
- Let the relationship problems accumulate and drain your tank. Once you hit empty, your heart will force you to give up on the relationship or seek out couple’s therapy.
Repairing and Reconnecting is Required for Lasting Love
No matter who you love, there are going to be misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and moments of disconnection. A Love Tank will have leaks and drain from time to time. That is natural.
The difference between couples who maintain a full Love Tank and those who don’t is their willingness to repair and reconnect.
Dr. Gottman calls a repair the “lifejacket of all romantic relationships” and the effectiveness of the repair depends on the emotional connection. The better the friendship and more emotionally connected you are, the easier it is to repair.
To fill up your Love Tank and deepen your emotional connection, download my free guide “The 4 Facets to Fill Up Your Relationship’s Love Tank.” I’ll give you 15 actions you can take today to improve your emotional connection.
A Half Love Tank Relationship
Something I see in couples, especially in a clingy-distancer relationship, is that the clinger often does their best to fill the distancer’s side of the Love Tank in hopes that the distancer will stay in the relationship, even at the expense of the clinger’s own well-being, passions, and values.
As a retired stage-5 clinger, I realize that I struggled with expressing what I needed to be happy in the relationship and had trouble receiving affection, appreciation, or admiration without feeling I had “earned it.” This style of loving actually blocks intimacy because our partner never gets to know what we need to be happy, nor do we allow ourselves to truly receive affection and love for just being who we are.
Furthermore, we stay in an unfulfilling relationship hoping our partner will “change,” while our side of the tank continues to drain until we are depressed, feel unworthy of love, and are incredibly lonely.
Both sides must be full for the relationship’s Love Tank to be full. If one partner’s needs are neglected, the Love Tank is leaking and needs to be repaired. 2
A Full Love Tank Equals A Secure Relationship.
When a Love Tank is draining, insecurity enters a relationship and even the most confident partners can feel insecure. When this happens, partners run for cover or criticize if they feel unappreciated, unwanted, or mistreated.
That’s why it’s so important to practice giving some kind of reassurance daily. Dr. Gottman’s motto for a healthy relationship is “small things often.”
Do tiny actions daily that display commitment, love, and affection. Tell your significant other that you love them. Buy their favorite candy bar and surprise them. Soothe their insecurities with kindness and care instead of defensiveness.
By filling up your partner’s Love Tank, you’ll make them feel secure, important, and loved. As a result, you’ll receive a lot more support in making the relationship last.
- The inspiration for this insight came from James Clear and his article The Theory of Cumulative Stress: How to Recover When Stress Builds Up. The Same advice applies to relationships, but it a different way. ↩
- Note: If your romantic partner or spouse continually refuses to support you in filling up your Love Tank or going to therapy to figure out how to fill up your Love Tank better, then maybe the best way to fill up your Love Tank is to walk away. ↩