Happy Marriage… as Easy as 1,2,3 (…4,5)
Updated: Sep 10
Written By Miranda Filamini - Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapy Associate
I come across so many people in both my professional and personal worlds who are looking for some foolproof keys to a happy relationship. Many have gotten advice over the years that doesn’t seem to work (if you really want to get me on a soapbox, wind me up with the long overused, definitely misguided “never go to bed angry” and watch me go!) Because each relationship is so unique, it’s impossible to generalize one rule of thumb to work for all of them. However, relationship researcher John Gottman has gotten pretty close. Through his decades of research on what separates the “masters” of relationships from the “disasters,” Gottman has determined some of the basic requirements for a connection that satisfies and thrives. The best part? In some cases, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3 (…4, 5).
Many of my clients who are engineers by profession are thrilled to learn that for many, a happy relationship can be achieved by paying attention to the numbers. That’s right, Gottman’s research reveals a couple of simple ratios to keep in mind if we want to stay on track in our relationships.
When it comes to conflict, we know from Gottman’s work that the ideal ratio of positive experiences to negative experiences is 5:1. That means we need five positive conflict behaviors for every one negative conflict behavior to counteract lasting damage to the relationship. Maybe you’re thinking, “Uh, it’s conflict—where is the positive in that?” Stick with me—
You calmly ask your partner to tell you more about how she is feeling… positive!
You let your partner know you understand his point of view even though you disagree… positive!
You sincerely address your partner by “baby” or another pet name during a disagreement… positive!
You apologize for yelling three seconds ago… positive!
You reach out and touch your partner on the hand when she begins to cry… positive!
You find something mutually entertaining or silly about the tension of the moment and laugh together… positive!
Look! I found six!
We need these five positive experiences as buffers for those inevitably damaging moments that come with conflict territory. Between screaming, name calling, blaming, and cold shouldering, there is more than enough opportunity for conflict behaviors to bring both partners down and chip away at feelings of safety. A sense of safety and security in the relationship is absolutely necessary for it to thrive. Think of the five positive conflict behaviors as knitting together to form a trampoline. When you become filled with rage and call your partner a name you know hurts him, or when in the heat of the moment your partner spitefully threatens to leave the relationship, you can bounce back with the help of that trampoline. Without the trampoline—well—you fall. Hard.
Logisticians, rejoice! Gottman gives us yet another ratio to guide us even when we are not in conflict. When things are going well in our relationships, we only need a mere 20:1 positive to negative interactions to sustain a healthy connection.
What!? TWENTY positives for every ONE negative? It sounded daunting to me at first, too.
However, you don’t have to start studying Ryan Gosling in The Notebook to increase the amount of positive interactions and beef up your ratio. In fact, I recommend my clients start really small.
Take one second to kiss your partner on your way out the door… positive!
Send a text to ask how his day is going… positive!
Offer a word of appreciation that your partner did the dishes… positive!
Grab a glass of water for him while you’re getting one for yourself… positive!
“That dress looks so great on you.” … positive!
When we scale down to the mundane, it’s actually possible to hit 20 positive interactions before your lunch hour. What’s more, these efforts toward positivity don’t simply benefit and build up your partner, but they increase your relationship satisfaction, too. Each positive interaction goes toward building what Gottman calls a “culture of appreciation,” which is ultimately the factor that will make or break how your relationship responds to conflict. Think about opening a checking account for your emotional connection. Are you depositing more than you withdraw? Sure, we all have monthly bills to pay, but it’s still possible to keep our balance trending upward.
If you are currently taking advantage of couples counseling or are considering it to address conflicts that keep coming up in your relationship, I recommend you get one step ahead of the process and start monitoring your positive to negative interaction ratios. Building awareness of patterns is the first step to unlocking your full potential in your connection with your partner.
Happy counting and computing, everyone!
Quote from the author: “I believe that the best path to happiness and fulfillment is through human connection. We are relational beings. We smile more and laugh harder when our relationships are full of trust, affection, and play. I am passionate about helping couples find and restore these elements in their day-to-day lives.” Learn more about her mental health services here.
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