Have you ever counted how many positive or negative interactions you have with your partner? It may sound like an odd thing to track, but it can be a key component of having a happy stable relationship. In his research, Dr. John Gottman found that in conflict conversations successful couples had five seconds of time together in a positive (or neutral) emotional state for every one second in a negative emotional state. He coined it as the magic ratio of 5:1, and many translated this data to mean that couples need five positive interactions for every negative one. Outside of conflict discussions, successful couples had an even higher positive-to-negative ratio—20:1. Having a ratio below 5:1 within conflict became one of the many potential divorce indicators found in the Gottman research.
What are some examples of interactions that could result in that negative emotional state?
- Use of the Four Horsemen: Defensiveness, Criticism, Contempt, or Stonewalling
- Lashing out at your partner when flooded instead of taking a time-out
- Raising your voice during conflict
- Neglecting to do something you told your partner you would do
- Being invalidating
- Rejecting bids for connection
- Using a harsh start-up
- Rejecting a repair attempt used by your partner
- Not listening to your partner when they speak during conflict
- Forgetting important milestones and events that are important to your partner
To generalize, for each one of the above, you need five or more positive interactions to even out the ratio.
Learn more about what you can do to boost your relationship.
I invite you to do a little research on your own relationship. Get a journal or find a way to take notes on your phone. Pick at least three days throughout the week to track your interactions with your partner. If you have a conflict, pay close attention to the interactions within that. Was it all negative or did you see some instances where you felt listened to and understood by your partner? At the end of the week, tally up what your ratio looks like. If you feel like you fell short of the magic ratio or just want to keep it elevated, here are some tips to have more positive interactions.
Share Appreciation. Tell your partner three things you appreciate about them every day.
Show affection often. Affection can be both physical and verbal like holding hands or saying “I love you.”
Be an active listener. Make sure you are listening to understand and not just respond. Ask questions, summarize, and make eye contact.
Engage in acts of service. Do something for your partner that takes the stress away from them like a chore or a task they are normally responsible for.
Show your partner you are thinking of them. Buy them their favorite treat or remember to ask them about an important meeting at work they told you about.
Show validation. Phrases like “That makes sense” or “I can understand why you feel that way” can make a world of difference, even if you don’t agree with your partner’s perspective.
Have fun together. Make time for weekly date nights or create a ritual of connection on a daily basis like having coffee together or taking a walk.
Respond positively to bids for connection. Be aware of when your partner is trying to connect. For example, if your partner asks how your day was, say more than “Fine.” Share with detail, then ask them about their day as well.
Practice empathy. Especially during conflict, it is important to try to understand and share your partner’s feelings.
After you incorporate more positive interactions that will keep your relationship in that positive emotional state, get the journal back out and track again. A little every day (what the Gottmans call “small things often”) can get you closer to the magic 5 to 1 and help make a difference in relationship satisfaction.