Experts Say What Makes Relationships Last is a Simple Equation

Kelly E.

Great couples do pay attention to their interactions
How we communicate matters long term Suzana Sousa on Unsplash

I’m not a big fan of math. Ratios and fractions, particularly, scared me at school. But this ratio is one I’m keen to embrace wholeheartedly: 5:1

Five positive interactions to one negative.

Five smiles, gentle touches, kind words, loving notes. Five times that you listen and pay attention with real interest. Five times that you comfort, laugh, reassure, and act silly together.

Five to one. That’s the ratio that Dr John Gottman — after over 30 years of research — says determines whether your relationship will last the distance.

What successful couples do

“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”

Negative interactions are so powerful that they need five positive ones to recover. Does that mean you should avoid any conflict to cut down negative interactions? Of course not. Avoiding conflict is unhealthy and impossible. It’s not the conflict that’s the issue — that’s going to happen in any relationship. Like Gottman explains in the example above, it’s how you manage conflict that matters.

Great couples do a few things during conflict that help keep the math in check:

They use a “soft start up” to conflict

The easiest way to imagine soft start ups is to imagine the opposite. Harsh start ups are full of criticism, contempt and defensiveness.

“You always do this!”
“What is all this junk? You’re such a mess! It’s like I’m living with a lazy teenager.”
“Here we go again.” (Eye-roll)

Starting to get the picture? It’s pretty nasty. Gottman describes soft start ups, on the other hand, as non-critical ways to bring up issues.

Compare these start ups and you’ll see what he means:

Soft start up — “I asked a while ago if I could get some help setting the table and dinner is almost done. Would you please do that for me now?”

Instead of:

Critical harsh start up — “You never help me! I asked you to set up the table and it’s still not done. I might as well do it myself.”

They use humor, affection, and other repair attempts to keep the interactions positive

Even during conflict, you can maintain the 5:1 ratio using repair attempts. Repair attempts are small efforts to reconnect with your partner and stop things from escalating. It might be something silly, a touch, an apology, or expressing appreciation.

“Oops, I really stuffed that one up! I’ll do that now. Your dinner smells absolutely delicious. You’re such an amazing cook.”

They show that they are listening

Another way great couples increase positive interactions when their partner is upset or has a complaint to raise is to respond rather than react. When you respond you avoid getting defensive. Instead, you show that you really want to hear and understand what your partner is saying.

“I can see that this is really hard for you to bring up. What would you like to talk about?”
“I know this is tough to talk about but I’m sure we can work it out together.”

Successful couples also often hold hands while they talk about tough things or sit close side-by-side, adding affection as an extra positive interaction.

If you want your relationship to last the distance, it’s not the fighting that counts, it’s the ratio. Keeping your interactions mostly positive and focused on what’s great about your partner and your relationship will keep it steered in the right direction. It sounds simple. But sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do!

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