What is the formula for a healthy relationship?

Is your relationship a positive one, or a negative one? For most of us, the answer is… it depends on the day. Like anything in life (family, career, home), relationships work best when the positive feelings and actions outweigh the negative ones. On a good day, when your partner is treating you well, listening to you, loving you and making your life easier, the scales tip to the side of ‘positive’. On a bad day, when your partner criticises you repeatedly, doesn’t support you and takes you for granted, the scales tip the other way.

According to research, the key to a healthy relationship lies in the balance of this scale – the positives vs. negatives that both parties bring. Now you might assume that a relationship with NO negatives should be the goal. Surely any relationship would work better with NO disagreements? Well, no. Fortunately for most couples, the negatives are important for a relationship too. Negatives can include personality clashes, impoliteness, selfishness, criticisms and so on. So negative interactions can actually benefit the relationship… but why?

“[The role of negativity] in a healthy marriage may be to spur a cycle of closeness and distance that can renew love and affection. ‘Off’ times allow couples to become reacquainted periodically and heighten their love.”[1]

In other words, negative interaction allows for the courtship to be renewed in some small way. As with a dance, sometimes you draw in close, and sometimes you create distance.

But how MUCH of this negative do we need in our relationship? What IS the recommended balance? In relationship studies, we seldom see any kind of formula, but in this case relationship researcher John Gottman [2] has provided us with one.

5 Positive : 1 Negative

This means that for every one negative interaction, in order to set the balance and keep your relationship nourished you need to experience five positive interactions. These “positive” ones don’t have to be impressive or romantic gestures. They could just be bringing your partner a cup of tea, or taking the kids off them for a bit to give them some free time. Or even just being polite, paying compliments, laughing, touching, smiling and showing support.

When you’re facing difficult and challenging times as parents trying to run a family, you’re probably not in a position to make big sweeping gestures like cooking your partner a three-course meal, whisking them off for a weekend away or even taking them out for the evening. So it’s just as well that the positives in the 5:1 ratio don’t need to be extravagant or overtly romantic.

“Stable and happy couples share more positive feelings and actions than negative ones. Unhappy couples tend to have more negative feelings and actions than positive ones.”[3]

It’s worth noting that while a negative to every five positives is encouraged, the word ‘negative’ is quite broad and certain types of negative (or too many negatives on a consistent basis) can be particularly destructive to the relationship. These more damaging negatives include great stubbornness, contempt, defensiveness, withdrawal from interaction and acts of aggression or physical violence. These really exist outside of the ratio – it’s important to remember that some actions and behaviours are never beneficial to a relationship.

Lastly, there may be some couples out there who experience a ratio with lower negatives of say, 10:1 or even 20:1 where negative interactions are rare. Some even claim they don’t experience negatives at all. In a social gathering where other couples are discussing what they all argue about, this couple will often turn to each other with raised eyebrows and a hokey grin before saying: “To be honest… we just don’t really argue, do we honey?” And the other one shakes their head and goes “Nope.”, both of them apparently quite confused about what everyone else could possibly be doing wrong in their relationships. But you needn’t worry about achieving this level of harmony with your spouse. According to research, while a ratio of even 100:1 could be effective in the short-term, in order to sustain a relationship (or marriage) with real staying power, 5:1 is the ticket.

References
 

[1] “Why marriages succeed or fail” – John Gottman p.65

[2] https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/cfs/cfs-744-w.pdf

[3] “Why marriages succeed or fail” – John Gottman p.56

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