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In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to talk to you about a simple rule that can help you have a better marriage or dating relationship. But before I tell you the rule, I want to share a bit about how it came about.

John Gottman and the Love Lab

A professor named John Gottman set up a research laboratory at the University of Washington to study marriage. Couples would come into the lab and fill out a bunch of questionnaires. Couples would also stay overnight in what looked like a small apartment. The only difference was the apartment was hooked up with a bunch of cameras. Gottman collected data on everything! After couples participated in the research study, Gottman followed the couples for several years to see which ones (a) stayed together and were happy, (b) stayed together and were unhappy, or (c) divorced. Gottman then tried to figure out whether there was anything he could tell about the couples when he first met them that predicted whether they would end up having successful marriages.

The 5:1 Rule

One of Gottman’s big findings was the 5:1 rule.

Basically, the rule says for a married couple to stay together and be happy, the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions has to be greater than 5:1. If ratios started to dip below the 5:1 range, the marriage showed signs of trouble. If the ratio became much worse, the couple was not likely to make it.

3 Lessons from the 5:1 rule

What can we learn from the 5:1 rule?

  1. Keep track of positive and negative interactions in your relationship. You don’t know what you don’t know. When couples come in for counseling, the first thing I recommend is an assessment. What is the problem? How bad is it? What are the couple’s strengths and weaknesses? It might be helpful to sit down with your partner and keep track of positive and negative interactions for a week to assess where you are.
  2. The bad is stronger than the good. Suppose you criticize your wife in front of her family. You might think you can make up for the one bad interaction by doing one good thing, like taking her out to dinner. Wrong! The bad is stronger than the good. One negative interaction does more harm in your marriage than one positive interaction helps your marriage. I think there are three takeaways from this: First, try really hard to avoid hurting your partner. Second, when you do hurt your partner, don’t expect the hurt feelings to go away quickly or easily. It may take a bit of time and effort to get back into the other person’s good graces. Third, when you hurt your partner, it might be helpful to make amends and seek forgiveness to lessen the negative impact of your hurtful action.
  3. Having enough positives takes purposeful, scheduled effort. It can be challenging to maintain the 5:1 ratio. Often relationships drift into a place where partners just go through the motions, rather than make a consistent effort to value their partner and do things that make the partner feel loved. One idea to combat this drift into complacency is to schedule positive things to do for your partner. Write it in your planner, just like you would schedule in a meeting or go to the gym. Then do it and see what happens!

Discussion: What do you think of the 5:1 ratio? In your experience, is the bad more powerful than the good? Do an assessment with your partner. Where do you stand in regard to your ratio of positive and negative interactions?

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