John Gottman is a major name in relationship psychology. He has spent much of his career studying how couples interact and what those interactions mean for the quality of a marriage. His research into how relationships fall apart is a great resource for anyone who wants to strengthen their communication with their partner.
The secret to a healthy relationship turns out to be fairly simple: Make sure positive interactions sufficiently outnumber negative interactions.
In the 1980s, Gottman & Levenson carefully examined how 73 married couples interacted with each other. The researchers developed a checklist for classifying positive vs negative interactions during a conversation, and then counted each of them whenever couples engaged in a discussion. They wanted to identify the emotional balance in each partner’s communication style: the ratio of positive to negative remarks.
Positive indicators on their checklist included productively describing a problem, finding agreement, and using friendly humor. Negative indicators included complaining, criticizing, defensiveness, and using “yes-but” remarks.
Every positive remark from a partner during a conversation added one point to their accumulated “interaction quality” total, and every negative remark subtracted one point. In the graphs below, you can see how points evolved for two example couples (one line for each partner).
Although both couples showed some examples of positive and negative interactions, the couple on the left showed a positive slope over time: With each turn at speech, their accumulated total moved upward overall because there were many more positive than negative interactions. The opposite was true for the couple on the right: With each turn at speech, their accumulated total moved downward overall. Gottman referred to the healthier positive-slope couples as “regulated couples” and the negative-slope couples as “non-regulated couples”.
Compared to regulated couples, the researchers found that non-regulated couples had more severe marital problems, worse health, worse emotional well-being, and lower marriage satisfaction overall. All in all, they were at greater risk of divorce.
One crucial rule came out of the study: A stable marriage requires a positive-to-negative interaction ratio of approximately 5:1. For every negative interaction, there should be at least five positive interactions.
Every relationship contains some heated conversations, disagreements, and communication barriers. You just need to make sure the pleasant interactions significantly outweigh the unpleasant interactions.
Gottman’s research has inspired all kinds of interesting work in recent years. One of my favorite projects came in 2016 when a group of US researchers studied how chimpanzees cooperate.
The researchers gathered a group of 11 adult chimpanzees and set up a task that required groups of two or three chimpanzees to pull together on a piece of equipment to gain a reward.
Chimpanzees were free to select their own cooperative partners, but they faced two major competitive risks: 1) Dominant chimpanzees pushing others off the equipment to steal their place; 2) Freeloaders stealing the rewards that cooperating chimpanzees earned.
Despite the risks posed by cheaters, the chimpanzees were highly cooperative overall. Amazingly, they showed approximately five acts of cooperation for every one act of competition. In other words, the 5:1 relationship rule applies not just to humans but to their primate cousins too.
- There’s something fundamental about the 5:1 rule in healthy relationships. Don’t worry about eliminating negative interactions entirely. Focus on achieving a healthy balance of five positive interactions for every negative interaction.
- To increase positive interactions, look for opportunities to make your partner laugh, compliment them, and find agreements in conversation. When working through a problem, describe the issue through a neutral or positive lens while avoiding emotionally negative framing.
- On the Gottman Institute website, you can learn more about the risk factors in communication that lead to relationship breakdown. A simplified version highlights four core risk factors (often called “The Four Horsemen”) as illustrated in my graphic below. Work with your partner to reduce any examples of these risk factors in your relationship.
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