No one wants conflict in their marriage. We’re all searching for stability in our relationships. But, particularly now, that’s a hard ask. We’re all overworked, made more prickly by mounting bills, the messiness of remote work, and the worry we feel for our friends and loved ones. This means we’re all bound to bark at one another, to have interactions that end with rolled eyes or dagger-sharp stares. None of this is news. Every interaction in a relationship can’t — and shouldn’t be — positive. Disagreements and arguments are necessary. However, there is a big component that leads to a happy marriage, a magic formula of sorts that you can employ to keep the relationship more properly balanced. Known as the 5:1 ratio, it holds the key to a stronger marriage.
Dr. John M. Gottman, the world-renowned therapist and relationship expert, devised the 5:1 ratio after years of research and identified it as a key aspect of healthy relationships. It goes like this: for every one negative interaction, you need to engage in five positive ones. So, if you suddenly lash out at your partner because the dishes aren’t done, then you need to take the time to do five positive things to tip the scales back to the positive side. Gottman has also noted that 5:1 is an excellent litmus test. If a couple finds themselves at, say, 2:3 ratio, the relationship is troubled. If they hit 1:1, then things are not looking great.
“It is important to remember the 5:1 ratio because it will help you and your partner stay together,” says Michelle Devani, a relationship expert and the founder of lovedevani.com. “If you know how to overcome negative interactions with positive interactions, you will have a happy, healthy, and lasting relationship.”
It is especially key to make sure that you engage in five positive interactions against one negative, because studies have shown that negative experiences tend to lodge themselves in the brain more firmly than positive ones. In an article for the American Psychological Association, Elizabeth A. Kensinger, an associate professor in psychology at Boston College, wrote: “Across a number of studies, my colleagues and I have noted that memory for negative information often includes more item-specific visual details than memory for positive or neutral information. People have a hard time remembering which specific balloon or butterfly (both positive) they have seen, whereas they find it relatively easy to remember which snake, or gun, or dirty toilet they have seen.”
Given that negative interactions tend to have a strong emotional hold on couples, the need to highlight and accentuate the positive becomes glaringly apparent. As you evaluate your relationship and the positive to negative ratio, Barbara Harvey, a parent coach and the executive director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates says to ask yourself some key questions:
- How often are you taking your partner and your marriage for granted?
- Are you neglecting to take the time to invest in your relationship?
- Are you treating this person as an enemy instead of your closest ally?
- Do you allow another person to take priority over theirs?
- Are you consistently putting your needs before theirs?
“These are all things that do not allow for your partner to feel loved, safe, and cared for which will ultimately undermine and destroy your partnership,” says Harvey.
But, even when the negative elements have been identified, how can we balance it out? For some couples, it can be difficult to think of positive interactions, or they tend to find themselves so mired in negativity that the only way out is to perform the kind of grand, romantic gestures that most people don’t have the time, resources or energy for. However, experts agree that’s not the case. “A positive interaction doesn’t necessarily need to be something grand such as giving gifts or having dates,” says Devani. “A positive interaction can be as simple as being attentive to your partner or showing affection to your partner.”
If you want to ensure that your positive engagements outweigh the negative, experts agree that simple gestures done throughout the day can have a powerful effect on steering a relationship in the right direction. Here are three tips that should put the odds in your favor.
Send a short but sweet text or leave a love note where your partner can find it. A small reminder that you’re thinking of your partner and that he or she is valued can go a long way.
“Be sure to include an intimate and heartfelt detail in your notes as a key way to boost your bond,” Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV, and co-star on WE tv says. “Say something like, ‘Thanks for bringing me my coffee in bed this morning. I loved that — and I love you.’”
Try and deepen the connection between you and your spouse by asking them questions about more than how their day was. Take an interest in their interest, ask them about something you know they love to talk about, or ask them to tell you something they’ve never told you before. “Begin to see each conversation as an opportunity for connection,” says Walfish, “from your heart to your partner’s.”
We all work hard during the day, even if we’re not going to an office or doing manual labor. A simple “thank you” or an acknowledgement of what your partner is doing to hold up his or her end in the relationship. Again, it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or an outpouring of gratitude on one knee. Just recognizing that they’re valued and appreciated will mean the world to them. “When your partner takes out the garbage, makes you a meal, or does your laundry,” says Lynell Ross, a psychology-trained certified health and wellness coach, behavior change specialist and certified life and relationship coach, “tell them you appreciate their effort and say ‘thank you’ out loud.”