The Mathematics of Happy Marriages

Dr. John Gottman has scientifically studied marriage for decades. Some of his findings validate conventional wisdom, some turn conventional wisdom upside down.

One of his findings is what he calls the “magic ratio.” This is the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions that lead to spouses feeling like they have a happy, successful marriage. The ratio is 5 to 1. 5 positive interactions or experiences for every one negative one. For some people that seems pretty low. Others may feel like this is the last nail in the coffin of their marriage because they can’t imagine having 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.

The good news is that you are largely in control of this. If you need to get in better physical condition, you don’t say, “Well, I’m just not the kind of person who exercises or eats well. I’m not strong or fit. I’m just weak.” No, you make a decision and you begin to do things differently. And that is what you expect. Lifting weights might not be enjoyable at first, but you do it knowing that it will produce the strength in your muscles that you desire. Taking time out for running or walking doesn’t come naturally at first, but you do it knowing that it will produce the fitness you desire. Low and behold, if you do the things that lead to physical fitness, you become more physically fit!

We often think of our personalities and relationships as things that just are the way they are. “I’m just not that positive a person.” “We just don’t get along that well.” “My spouse will never be happy with me for who I am.” We think this, but it is generally not true. Our positive feelings and interactions are as buildable as our muscles.

Just like it’s not fake to lift weights when you are weak because you want to be stronger, so it is not fake to choose different actions in hopes that the dynamics of your relationship will improve. Specifically, to choose actions that will lead you toward and beyond the magic ratio of 5 to 1.

Note that it is important to have some negativity. This means you are sharing who you really are. You and your spouse are not going to see eye-to-eye on every issue.

But that ratio appears to be important, so it’s worth proactively addressing.

These positives do not have to be large and difficult things or grand gestures. Anything that you know makes your spouse feel good (not just what you think makes your spouse feel good, because you might have a wrong assumption. And when you assume you… well, you know what happens when you assume!) But if you are out of the habit, it will take some concentration and practice.

Unless the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal) have really taken up residence in your marriage, you can probable find more ways to interact positively just by being aware of the need to do it. It may not happen in a day or a week, but by choosing positive interactions, you will likely begin to have a more positive sense about your relationship. After a while, you will think “Hey, I’m feeling more positive about our marriage.”

You may also have to condition yourself to find the positive things (just like conditioning your muscles to be strong). Pick something you can say that’s positive and affirming, even if it’s one among nine other things you don’t appreciate at the moment. If your spouse cooked a meal that didn’t turn out particularly tasty, you can say “Thanks for cooking. It’s always nice to have a hot meal. I really appreciate it.” If things are on the negative side in your relationship, your spouse might say, “What? You didn’t like it did you? You don’t appreciate what I do.” You can reply with honesty and appreciation. “Listen, I’m not trying to comment on the meal, honey. I’m trying to tell you that I recognize and appreciate the effort you put into it. Thank you.”

The point is that the magic ratio has been verified by research. It’s something you can influence through your own choices. Choose to plant positive interaction seeds and they will grow into marital happiness flowers.

Like the rest of Gottman’s marriage research I’m blogging about for a few days, I am just touching on this subject. But he’s got a lot of great stuff on his web site:

Here are some blog entries from his team on the subject of the magic ratio: