Relationship Problems? How to Bring Back the Magic

Ever thought about how often you have positive interactions with your partner vs. negative ones? You probably don’t keep a tally – but maybe you should be…

Dr John Gottman is one of the most influential relationship therapists of our time. He has extensively researched couples, to the point where he can predict with 94% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or get divorced just by watching how they interact. Pretty impressive! 

So what are the secrets of a happy relationship? It’s largely down to one simple magic ratio…

The 5:1 ratio.

It turns out it doesn’t matter that much if your relationship is volatile, what actually matters is whether the negative interactions are balanced by positive ones, and when I say balanced, I mean outweighed 5 to 1.

Notice that it’s a 5:1 ratio – not a 5:0 ratio. Disagreements and conflict in a relationship are important, as they allow for learning and growth. But what’s really important is that disagreements happen in the context of some positive emotions still being present. This means that despite the argument, you can connect with why you love them, and continue to value the relationship as a whole. When you fail to experience any positive interactions or when neutral interactions are perceived as negative, then you might want to consider buying one of John’s many successful books or seeing a relationship therapist.

Positive interactions include things like touching, smiling, laughing together, paying each other compliments and listening to each other. They don’t have to be glamorous or dramatic, they can be small things that make your partner feel valued. Just the act of sneaking in a loving glance at each other when you’re out to dinner with friends can be powerful enough.

Negative interactions include things like nagging, criticising, giving them the silent treatment, or responding to your partner defensively. Gottman calls these the 4 Horsemen, and suggests that these are the things that put relationships most in jeopardy, namely criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. 

So here are some easy ways to keep your positivity ratio in check:

1.     Pause before you react negatively. Notice when you and your partner have been engaging in a lot of negative interactions (“bad months” - we all have them). This could be a sign that you may benefit from  some pausing. When things are getting heated, pause before you react and consider…

Is it really that important for me to call my partner lazy because they didn’t do the housework? Or to shame them in front of friends to prove that I am right about something?

Think about the costs rather than focusing on the gains - sure you might blow off some frustration at the time - but is it worth the cost to your relationship? Remember, it’s harder to repair something like that than it is to surf the urge to react. A simple sorry often doesn't cut it. 

2.     Schedule positive experiences. If most of your interactions with your partner are neutral (watching TV side-by-side while playing on phones) or negative (playing tit-for-tat over who should do the dishes) it may be time to actively schedule some positive experiences for you and your partner. Let your partner know what you value about them, show them physical affection, go for a walk together, or take the time listen to them (phones away).

3.     Soothe negative situations. When you notice that a difficult conversation is going from bad to worse, do something to soothe the situation, like take your partners hand, add some humour (if appropriate), say something kind… or don’t say the unkind thing that you want to say. This is a hard one to put into practice.

It can help to ask yourself – what is the opposite of my angry urge right now? And do that instead. Your urge may be to go through the "you always do this list" or to leave the situation while it's unresolved. So instead, lean into your partner, give them a hug, or try to soften in some way. If it’s escalated beyond that, let your partner know that the argument has become too unproductive and that you need to take a time out. Then, come back to it later when you’ve both had time to cool off.

We’d love to know the things you’ve tried to shift the positivity ratio in your relationship. What works? What doesn’t? Share the love in the comments section below.  

With Warmth, 

Kass & Alicia 

P.S. May you keep happiness in sight xx