Licensed Psychologist

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Relationship Maps 
columns by
​Dr. Benna Sherman

(courtesy of The Capital)

The Relationship Account

    You don’t need to be an accountant to understand the basics of a bank account.       You put money into the account so that it will be there when you need it. You take money out of the account when you need it. The first is a deposit; the second is a withdrawal or debit.
    You can only withdraw from the account as much as you’ve deposited into it.
    “Saving for a rainy day” means making deposits in anticipation of needing to make withdrawals, possibly without much notice. When you have a positive balance in your bank account you can make withdrawals and still feel safe and secure that you have enough. You may not enjoy the withdrawal — for instance, unexpectedly having to pay to install a new heat pump — but you can cover the costs and still have a positive balance. Without a positive balance, any withdrawal puts you into “the red”, an unsafe and unstable financial state.
    The “Relationship Account” works essentially the same way. Instead of money, “deposits” take the form of positive events between partners. “Withdrawals” are negative events that occur between partners. Just as with a bank account and money, sometimes there are withdrawals that have to be covered by previous deposits. Without a positive balance, a withdrawal creates a negative and unstable state.

    Sharon and Miguel were sharing morning coffee and going over the day ahead.
    Miguel brought Sharon the last chocolate chip muffin and put it on the table in front of her with a bow and a flourish. “The last precious muffin for m’lady.”
    Sharon smiled and blew him a kiss.
    [Each of them had now made a deposit into their respective accounts. This was going to be important when Miguel now has to make a withdrawal.]
    Miguel then said, “Umm, remember when I told you that the big project at work was going to be starting any minute? Well, it turns out that ‘any minute’ is going to be this weekend. We have to be on-site from early Saturday morning through Sunday evening.”
    Sharon looked up, eyes wide and brow furrowed. “But this weekend is our tickets to the game!”
    [Big withdrawal here; Sharon is a devoted fan and has been looking forward to this game for weeks; she is very disappointed. Fortunately the muffin-with-flourish was only one of many kind gestures that Miguel had been making. Only the day before he’d taken Sharon’s mom both to the podiatrist and to her hairdresser because Sharon’s own work demands wouldn’t permit her to take time out of her office. Those were two very substantial deposits by Miguel into the Relationship Account.]
    “I’m sorry, Sharon. I only found out in an email this morning and I have no options at all.” [The authentic apology is another deposit that Miguel has made.]
    [Sharon is sad and disappointed, but she’s not angry. She’s felt Miguel’s generosity this week especially and can tell that his regret is sincere. There have been plenty of deposits into their relationship account, more than enough to cover even this substantial withdrawal. Their relationship status remains in safe territory. Their account balance is still in comfortably “in the black”.]

    The balance in a Relationship Account is dynamic. Just as with your bank balance, the situation shifts constantly as deposits and withdrawals occur. Partners are human, life happens, and plans go awry. It’s important to make regular deposits into the Relationship Account in order to keep the balance “in the black” so that withdrawals don’t damage the stability and security in the relationship.
    There are big deposits, like a surprise 40th birthday trip to a tropical island. There are small deposits, like the last chocolate chip muffin. Similarly, there are big withdrawals, like three months of concentrated studying for a licensing exam while having very little time for participation in family events. There are small withdrawals, like forgetting to bring home the dry-cleaning.
    Withdrawals, big and small, will happen, even in the best of relationships. It’s critical that there be sufficient deposits, both large and small, to cover those withdrawals. Maintaining regular deposits requires commitment and consciousness.
    Just as with a bank account, forgetting to think about it, forgetting to make regular deposits, and forgetting to check your balance means that you can easily get caught short.
    Be fiscally and emotionally wise and responsible. You can’t prevent all withdrawals, but you can ensure that you have a healthy cushion in your account by making regular deposits.

About Life, Love, and Relationships

Noticing the positive

Frank and Debbie had been married for 16 years. In the past year the relationship had deteriorated to the point that even the smallest interactions were hostile. The only substantial personal conversations that they had were fights. It had gotten to the point where all they could see about each other was what was wrong. They woke up irritable and went to bed defeated.

With a sense of obligation but very little hope, they sought counseling. Even in therapy they were so angry, hurt, and disappointed that they were having a hard finding anything positive in their relationship.

In an effort to redirect thinking that was deeply entrenched in negative patterns, a strategy was introduced. For the next week, they were to compete to see who could notice more good things that their partner was doing. They were armed with paperclips, 30 each. His were gold; hers were striped. They were instructed to give a clip each time they “caught” their partner doing something positive. The positive behavior could be something small (emptying the dishwasher) or something huge (offering a kidney) or anything in between (offering to stay up with a sick kid). The objective was to be the one who gives away the most clips. At the end of the week we would count up how many striped clips she had given away and how many gold clips he had given away. Though they both scoffed at the idea that they could need more than the original 30 clips, they were assured that it was legal to exceed the original allotment. It was emphasized that the goal was not to accumulate clips but to give them away. This was to be a competition.

They were desperate so they were willing to play the paperclip game, even though neither one really expected much to come of it. They did share a light laugh as they walked out of the therapist’s office—at least they agreed for the first time in months about something — this was a stupid idea.

Without even thinking about it, he held the car door for her as she got in. With a laugh and a smirk, she said, “Haha; I get to give away the first clip”; and she handed him a striped clip from her pocket.

He laughed but also determined to hold his own in this game. He was alert for his chance. When she asked him if it was okay if she changed the radio station, he said, “Ha! You were being considerate; take that!”; and handed her a gold clip.

They each went their separate ways for the rest of the day. That evening when he got home he walked in on dinnertime. She and the kids were already sitting down and eating, because this was one of his late evenings. As he walked into the kitchen, she stopped dishing out mashed potatoes long enough to wave a hand toward the oven and tell him that his plate was, as usual, keeping warm in the oven. She didn’t say it in a particularly warm way, and in fact was testy as always when he worked late. He got his plate and went to sit down. Before he started eating he thanked her for cooking and for making his plate. Then he slid her a paperclip. The kids, who were engaged in a lively game of who-can-put-more-peas-on-a-fork, didn’t notice any of the interaction. But Debbie looked up at him, startled, and pocketed the clip with a small smile.

When Frank automatically started clearing the table and loading the dishwasher, as he always did when he was home for dinner, Debbie slid a clip into his pocket as she left the kitchen to read to the kids.

As the week continued, so did the paperclip exchange. As more clips were exchanged, so were more smiles. Before their next appointment, they each secretly went out and bought more clips. They also started to feel good about how many clips they’d accumulated. They each felt recognized and appreciated in ways they hadn’t experienced for a long time with each other. They found themselves looking for opportunities to “be good”, so that they would receive a clip.

When they walked into the next session, they each presented a baggie of clips to the therapist. The score was as follows-- Frank gave Debbie 43 clips; Debbie gave Frank 42 clips. Winner—the marriage.

The Highs and Lows Game

The kids were back in school, which meant that homework had begun and after school activities were in full swing. Her recertification class had started; his work travel had escalated.

Lisa was supervising the kids as they packed their lunches for the next day when Mark walked in from the airport. He kissed everyone on the head as he made his way toward the fridge to grab something for a late dinner.

Lisa was about to ask how his trip had gone when she had to redirect the lunch-making. “Noah, three apples is not a good enough lunch. Add some of tonight’s leftovers and give one apple to Penny. Penny, you have to have fruit or vegetable, not just two kinds of bread. Sam, that’s too much food; no one in first grade can eat three turkey legs.” Mark ate and watched with amusement as the lunch assembly proceeded. He was just finishing up and eager to ask Lisa how things had gone while he was away when they all heard the growl, the hiss, and the sound of the lamp smashing into the coffee table.

The kids ran to the scene, while Lisa and Mark hung back just long enough to exchange looks of, “Hi, I’ve missed you; oh, good heavens, now what?!”

The next night they were all, delightfully, sitting down at the dinner table together. Mark started out by saying, “Hey, guys, I learned a cool new family meal game. I’ll teach you how to play and we can all do it together at dinner tonight.”

The kids were all eager and Lisa was intrigued.

“Okay, so here’s how it works. We go around the table and everyone gets a turn. When it’s your turn you get to tell the family either a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ about your day. A ‘high’ is something good or funny that happened; a ‘low’ is something bad or sad that happened. Everybody gets a turn for one ‘high’ and one ‘low’. Everyone ready?”

Noah, proudly, shared the evening’s first ‘high’ — “I got the first out at Dodge Ball today!”

After everyone had congratulated Noah, Mark turned to Penny and said, “Ok, kiddo, give me a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ from your day.”

After thinking for a minute, Penny said, “I got a 96 on my Spelling test.” Then, “Well, that’s good, so it’s a high, but I misspelled ‘through’, which was careless, so I guess it was also a low.”

Mark told her how he was impressed that she could count one thing in both ways.

The game continued, with everyone getting nicely engaged. Everyone was very sympathetic when the ‘lows’ came out, like when Sam shared that everyone’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Rogers, was retiring. They sat at the table for awhile even after dinner had been long finished; and they all agreed that Dad’s new game was a keeper.

That night, after everyone was safely stowed in their beds, Mark and Lisa sat down together for the first time in days. Lisa turned to Mark, smiling, touched his hand, and said, “Okay, time for Highs and Lows for grown-ups. We haven’t had a chance to really catch up in days. I think your new game would be a lovely way to start. Tell me a ‘high’.”

Mark smiled back at her, squeezed her hand, took a long slow breath, and said, “High #1 is that this trip went great. My presentation was a big success.” He went on to share details of how well the presentation had been received and how proud he’d been of his whole team.

“Now your turn. Gimme a ‘high’.”

Lisa had been bursting to tell him her good news. “I got the promotion!” She then regaled him with the details of how her boss had announced it to the whole department at the meeting and that the announcement had been met with applause from her coworkers.

After Mark had hugged, high-fived, and kissed her, she asked him about any ‘lows’ that had occurred during his trip. He replied that there hadn’t been anything really bad, but that there was now a rumor that the founder was considering retiring. He didn’t know if that would be a good or a bad thing for the company, or for him, but there would now be some new uncertainty.

“What about you, Lisa — any lows?”

Lisa teared up and said, “My friend, Carla, just had a ‘suspicious’ mammogram. She’s scared to death and I’m so worried for her.”

Mark held her and they talked about how to support Carla and her husband if it turned out badly.

That night, as Mark and Lisa turned out the lights to go to sleep, Lisa turned to Mark and said, “I like your new game. For a family as busy as ours, I think this will really help us stay connected. Thanks, Babe.”

Persistently troubled by the event, he finally confided in a friend at work whom he’d known for years. He presented it with laughter, as if it were funny to him and should be to his friend as well. He was disappointed but not surprised when his friend told him that he’d been a jerk. He tried to clarify how this was really his wife’s fault. His colleague wasn’t buying it. Worse, his friend pointed out that every time he started to accept his proper responsibility in the whole event, he would rapidly digress into blaming his wife.

He was now feeling more uncomfortable from the shame of failing her than from the shame of what he’d done in the first place. He was an inherently honest man, so he admitted to himself that his friend was right—he had been a jerk. He wondered if he had the guts to admit it to his wife. He didn’t even know if she’d accept an apology from him. And he wasn’t sure that he could stay properly penitent if she started reminding him how badly he’d handled the original conversation, no matter how much it might be deserved.

He was pretty sure that he was ready and able to face the music; but he wasn’t sure that once there he’d remain able to put aside his aggression-as-protection. He’d need courage to do this right. He told himself that he’d done other things in his life that scared him – he’d been in combat, for heaven’s sake. He’d done that because he believed in the cause for which he was fighting. Well, he believed in his marriage and in his love for his wife. He could do this too. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and went to find Marge.

Shame, guilt, regret, someone else’s rage—these are all things that can make us feel small, helpless, guilty, weak, or defensive. And those are very uncomfortable feelings. We tend to want to make those feelings go away, fast. Unfortunately, one of the most efficient ways of doing that is to take the offensive and take cover in our own rage and attacking behavior. That makes us feel less vulnerable and more powerful, but the relationship cost is high. If you can intimidate your partner into giving up or turning away, you both lose.

The winning course is to turn toward your partner with an attitude of honesty, caring, and courage.

How regret or shame can lead to aggression

​Marge was really upset about something that Sandy had done and was telling him calmly but clearly how hurt and angry she was. He seemed to be listening. He even looked ashamed of what he’d done. She was floored when what she thought was going to be an apology turned into a blistering attack, screaming at her about how the whole thing was her fault. It was all about how she had caused him to behave the way that he had.

She left the room with tears in her eyes. It felt hopeless to talk to him and his aggressive attitude was scary. She had been hoping for sensitivity and responsiveness. She’d gotten aggression instead.

After she left the room, he felt, briefly, relieved and strong. His rage had let loose a lot of adrenalin and that felt so much better than the shame he’d been feeling. He’d gotten her to stop talking to him about something that made him feel bad, and he’d been clear that the whole thing was her fault anyway. As the adrenalin rush subsided, it was slowly replaced with feelings of regret and shame, both for the original offense and for how he had handled this.

He stood up and moved toward the bedroom, a sincere apology on his lips. But then he remembered the feeling of shame when she’d confronted him with what he’d done. He couldn’t bear to feel that way again. It made him feel so bad and so small. He turned away from the bedroom and walked instead into his den and sat down at his desk. He buried himself in paperwork, and he pushed away the image of her face in tears. When it intruded, he reminded himself that it was her fault this had happened in the first place.

“I am content”

    On Sunday, 12/27/15, The Washington Post published a story on Fabio, the famous male model for innumerable romance novel covers. He’s been something between an icon and a caricature. His chiseled body and flowing hair have been his trademarks, as well as the foundation of the caricature.
    One is left, after reading the article, with the sense of a man who is more than his image. One is left, in fact, with a sense that this man, who still looks pretty much the same as he did on those book covers, has more than a little wisdom to go with those iconic looks.
    When Fabio stopped eating during a meal they shared, the reporter asked whether he was full. Fabio smiled and said, “I am content.”
    For me this was a profound comment about the difference between desiring more and having enough.

    Rob and Laura were traveling, as they did for one week every summer, with their lifelong friends, Jerry and Millie. They’d all known each other for so long, had traveled together so many times, that the time spent was easy, relaxed, and uncomplicated.
    Because it was so easy, conversation often drifted, as it will with old friends, into deep territory. They already knew everything there was to know about each other’s lives, so they often talked instead about thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams.
    In fairness though, Laura and Jerry sometimes talked and fought about football (Ravens and Steelers fans can be very intense with each other); Rob and Millie sometimes debated the merits of Martha Stewart vs. Alton Brown.
    Today it was Rob and Jerry at the pool. The conversation started for Rob and Jerry when a nubile 20-something walked by who was wearing a teeny bikini and a smile clearly directed at Rob. Jerry said, laughing and clearly in jest, “So, what do you think? Time to trade in Laura for a new model?”
    Rob laughed and pretended to consider the question. “Well, Laura does have more mileage on her; and she just got a consult on a new hip. Hmm, repair or replace?”
He laughed at the idea, but Jerry decided to carry the joke a little further.
    “Come on, Rob, you know it makes you crazy when she works those long hours and when she has to take one more class in something. Made me crazy when Millie decided to learn auto repair, and then to volunteer for one more shift at the firehouse.”
    Just then Millie and Laura walked by on their way to a yoga class. Rob watched Laura walk by, smiling and waving; and he smiled and waved back.
    He turned back to Jerry, looking thoughtful. “You know, she says that that hip thing is making yoga harder but more important. She’s told me that people come and go from her yoga class back home, but that she’s one of the few that always shows up.”
    He watched Laura walk into the building. “I really admire that about her. If she feels that something needs to be done, she does it. That includes those extra hours at work covering for people who needed time off. And I admire that she’s always learning and growing, even when it cuts a bit into our time.”
    Jerry, getting serious, said, “Yeah, I have to admit that I admire Millie’s commitment to the firehouse. She’s been involved since she was a teenager. I’m grateful that there are people like her to volunteer as paramedics. Remember last summer when she Heimliched that kid on the beach? Now, that was hot!”
    Rob, still being serious, asked, “Do you ever wish you were with a younger woman?’
    Jerry, turning serious too, said, “Nah. Truth is that I might get more of some things, but that I’d have to give up all the good that I have. That glowing 20 year old flesh is attractive, but I have a partner that I love, admire, and enjoy.” Jerry winked, “And besides, that auto repair class has really paid off in car repair savings.” He laughed heartily at that and said, “What about you? You ever think for real about a younger woman?”
    Rob shook his head. “Even with a bum hip, I don’t want anyone but Laura. I am content.”