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Happy vs. Unhappy Couples: The 5-to-1 Magic Ratio

by | Oct 27, 2020

To understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples, John Gottman, a leader in couples research and therapy, began doing longitudinal studies of couples in the 1970s.  From his research, he and his team developed a term called the 5-to-1 magic ratio which means that for every negative interaction, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.

On the flip side, the Gottman Institute found that unhappy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity and their ratio tends to look more like 1-to-1 or less.

Unfortunately, it appears that negativity has more power to inflict damage than positivity has the power to heal and bring us closer.  It’s critical that couples keep this ratio in check for the sake of their relationship.

What is a Positive Interaction?

In couples therapy, most couples need help defining along with specific examples of exactly what entails positive, constructive communication.  And that’s okay.  We aren’t taught this in school but it’s a skill that can definitely be learned.  They can be quick, subtle, easy-to-do behaviors like looking your partner in the eye when they’re talking to you, showing interest in what they say, and asking questions that show you care.

Here are some examples of positive interactions:

  • Showing Interest
  • Expressing Affection and Concern
  • Making Eye Contact
  • Demonstrating They Matter to You
  • Appreciation
  • Acknowledging Them
  • Finding Opportunities for Agreement
  • Empathizing and Apologizing
  • Smiling
  • Accepting Their Perspective
  • Lightening Things Up (Without Dismissing)
  • Listening to Understand
  • Touch— a Hug, a Kiss, a Warm Hand on the Shoulder
  • Asking Questions
  • Laughing at Their Jokes
  • Giving Sincere Compliments

What is a Negative Interaction?

More often than not, we can easily look at the list of negative habits and point to the ones our partner does to us.  It’s not so easy to see the one that you often do to your partner.  Become aware of your own non-verbal and verbal cues and acknowledge the ones that you need some work on.

Here are some examples of negative interactions:

  • Emotional Dismissiveness
  • Using One (or more) of the Four Horsemen: Contempt, Criticism, Stonewalling, Defensiveness
  • Judging Harshly
  • Labeling Your Partner
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation
  • Negative Body Language— Eye-rolling, Sighing, Arms Crossed
  • Turning or Walking Away
  • Ignoring or Avoiding
  • Combativeness
  • Sarcastic

Relationships as a Bank Account

Imagine your relationship as a bank account.  To keep it positive, it’s not enough to be slightly kinder than you are mean. It means you need to be overwhelmingly kind to offset any meanness or contemptuous signs.  It’s all about small, daily actions and behaviors.  The Gottman Institute suggests several ways to fill this “account” and bring about more positivity in your relationship.  The first sounds simple and even obvious but it’s often overlooked.  Start filling this love account by getting to your know partner well.  Positive interactions for this include being curious, asking good questions, and making great eye contact.  Then add appreciation, fondness, and admiration for your partner.  See the good in them and remember the reasons you fell in love with them.  This is a great time to give some meaningful compliments.  Last, learn to read and turn toward your partner’s bid for affection

Bids for Connection

A bid is simply any attempt for attention, affirmation, or affection.  Cues that communicate join me, help me, or pay attention to me are all bids for connection that can drastically improve your relationship.  Turning towards your partner, or accepting their bid, will bring about positive interactions and increase your ratio.  On the other hand, if you don’t turn toward their bid, you’ll end up turning away or turning against it.  Turning away leads to less bidding overall, avoidance of conflict, hurt feelings, and a loss of confidence.  It happens when you ignore or dismiss a bid being given.  Turning against also leads to less bidding, but causes an increase in conflict.  Turning against is when you mock the bid being given or even punish for it.  Both are equally damaging to the relationship.

This takes practice and doesn’t come naturally for a lot of people.  Again, that’s okay.  Don’t give up.  The first step is learning and becoming aware of this awesome skill that can help any relationship that you’re in.  As always, if this is something new or hard for you, reach out and ask for help.

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Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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