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For a Rich Relationship, Use Relationship Currency

When I was a kid, we sang a song in music class called The Magic Penny, in which love only grows when you give it away. The concept was silly enough for children but true enough for parents to say to themselves, “Yeah, seems legit. Glad my kid is learning that.”

Economics can be like that. If you let something of value just sit around unused, eventually it falls out of trend and becomes worthless. The Beanie Baby craze of my adolescence and young adulthood has gone away and now those little stuffed plushies have lost the value they had initially amassed by being rare. Eventually people said, “You paid $500 for a 3-inch stuffed toy because it was popular? That sucks. It’s not worth much now.”

Many of my clients come in wondering whether they have value and whether they are loveable. Their evidence for having low value is often mountain-high: their parents were inattentive, they are easily replaceable at their job, they have gone through a series of relationships that ended painfully. When I work with couples whose relationships are in trouble, there emerges a pattern of requiring one another to prove each is of value to the other - both of them waiting for the other to invest in them, and neither willing to take the first step and risk spending their energy to get nothing in return. My depressed patients wonder what I can see in them that is so valuable that I would put my energy into helping them and some of them go about trying to prove to me that my theory of their inherent value is folly.

In the economics of your emotional life, relationships are how we go about experiencing our own inherent value. However, relationships are not like a bank account: you don’t simply put in deposits and take out withdrawals, and end up with a zero-sum balance. This is where love becomes the magic penny: You as an individual become more and greater than you were before when you experience love.

As currency, a penny seems small, but when you think of the movement back and forth of penny after penny, with the multiplication of pennies every time one penny passes between you and one other person, all of a sudden you find yourself flooded with riches. So what are the currencies of relationships? What are those pennies actually made of?

  • Communication. This entails everything from practical planning to deep thoughts about yourself and the future to values and ideals.

  • Empathy. Being knowledgeable and attentive to the emotional experience of another person brings about a closeness upon which more can be built.

  • Time. Relationships require time, and not just in the beginning stages; once a relationship exists, it will continue to require dedicated time to be set aside.

  • Action. Following up agreements and requests with actions is instrumental both in establishing trust between people and in building a functional relationship in which everyone contributes.

Investing relationship currency won’t always guarantee a return, because it takes two people to make a relationship. But if you stay accountable for putting your relationship currency out for other people, eventually the people you want and need in your life will come closer to you and you will find yourself loved and valued just as you are.

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