When couples come into my office, it usually isn’t because their marriage is going well, and they just want to talk about how happy they are. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. They come in because something is broken in their relationship. Their connection has become disconnected. They have lost something they are afraid is “un-find-able”.
If you can identify with this feeling, don’t ignore it.
Think about it this way: if you ignored the engine warning lights that came on in your car, would you keep driving it? I hope not! You would get it somewhere to be fixed before you ruined the engine. Your marriage is also equipped with warning signs and I recommend coming in as soon as you recognize them.
Dr. John Gottman is a researcher and couples therapist. His research shows that there is a simple mathematical formula for making a healthy relationship. (And no- it is NOT 1 healthy person + 1 healthy person = 1 healthy relationship!)
His math is a simple ratio:
5 positive interactions
1 negative interaction
healthy, happy relationships.
This theory is backed by research (pg 35, “The Marriage Clinic” by John Gottman) is fairly simple. But it isn’t something that can happen overnight.
It’s a formula that will take as much time (or at least as many interactions) to correct as it did to build up.
How long have you and your partner been together? One year? Five years? At what point did you start noticing the “check engine” warning light begin to flash? How long have you been ignoring that light?
If it came on yesterday, great! That means the fix will likely be simpler. But if you’ve been ignoring it for a long time, it will take longer to correct. The more time that goes by, the more time it will take to get back on the right track.
You can get your marriage back and running like it’s supposed to again.
Do you remember all the kisses, touches, tenderness, and intimate moments you shared with your partner at the beginning? Hours spent on the phone, dates every week, etc.?
Those were points of positive connection. Those went into the ratio bank as positive and increased your top number.
But what happens over time when we begin to invest less and less in our relationship? The frequency of positive connections goes down. That number gets smaller.
And we miss each other. We yearn for the way it was in the beginning. We long for connection.
The opportunities to connect are actually right there. They didn’t go away. But if your relationship is on the rocks, it means you aren’t taking advantage of them anymore.
Sometimes, this leaves a gap, an opening, for an affair.
A Note On Affairs:
When a person isn’t cherished by their partner, but someone else notices them and makes them feel noticed, respected, loved, and appreciated, then that becomes an enticing alternative to the ratio going on at home.
The person wooing your partner is using the 5 or more positive to 1 negative interaction ratio to their advantage. They are making sure that they have a majority of positive interactions together.
If you’ve only had 12 interactions with someone, and they’ve all been positive, then you have an outlook that your future interactions with them will be positive.
When you’ve had one year of marriage with someone, your ratio might look like 6,000 positive interactions to 2,000 negative ones (the first year of marriage can be hard!). There’s a lot of interactions here. Over time, this data can move, one point at a time, towards the 4 positive to 1 negative, 3 to 1, 2 to 1, or 1 to 1 ratio. This means that there is less and less positive to fall back on when the hard times come. There is as much bad as good. So, what’s the point in sticking around?
Or, the ratio can move towards the 5 positive to 1 negative, 6 to 1, 7 to 1 ratios. When this happens, there is much more good and it offsets the bad. This is a relationship that has some positive collateral built-in.
This does not justify affairs. What the math can show, is how to strengthen your bond with your partner.
If your positive interactions to negative interactions is high, then their positive interactions with strangers will be just that- positive interactions with strangers.
Another thing to note here, is that others have similar ideas, but have called it different things. Dr. Gary Chapman uses an idea called “love languages” which is like Gottman’s idea of a “positive connection.” There is much support for this idea.
Chapman’s idea of “filling your partner’s love tank” can be another way to think about creating positive connections in your relationship.
Additionally, the idea of “secure attachment” (John Bowlby, Sue Johnson) may happen when the love tank is filled most of the time, and the positive to negative interactions is higher than 5 to 1.
All these therapeutic theories tie in together with this idea.
But the point is this: you and your partner have the power to change your relationship from unsatisfying to satisfying.
When things are going poorly in a relationship, sometimes it feels like you can get stuck in a downward spiral. For example, a couple can have an entire weekend get derailed just with one little fight on Friday night. This little argument turns into a big fight over a span of the whole weekend, because it doesn’t ever get resolved, but keeps spilling over and over and over.
It could start out by something as simple as a favorite pair of work out pants getting thrown in the dryer. We’ll use this example to tease out what the ratio theory looks like.
The pants getting thrown in the dryer feels like a missed connection, (a negative interaction) for the wife because she loves those pants and has asked her husband to make sure to lay them out several times.
Then she’s miffed about that, and begins to notice everything that he’s doing is driving her crazy. Many potential opportunities to fill each other up with positive interactions are lost because of this.
She doesn’t make any eye contact during dinner.
He senses her frustration and tells a lighthearted joke (bid for positive).
She perceives his joke as trying to avoid her (another negative).
She ignores his joke (negative).
All goes quiet for the rest of the evening (negative).
You can see how one negative interaction can throw a whole weekend off.
What’s interesting in the example above, is that he may not even know what he’s done to create a negative interaction.
It doesn’t have to be a blatant statement to be a negative interaction.
The perception of each partner in the relationship is what is important. In fact, it may be that he didn’t even throw the clothes in the dryer at all, perhaps the babysitter did it! Regardless, she perceived a negative interaction.
What would have happened if she could have responded to the joke with even a courtesy laugh or smile? That would have given them one more positive interaction in the bank.
Then she could have expressed her upset in a healthy way (rather than avoiding eye contact).
Then he could connect with her in that. He might have apologized, explained that it was the babysitter, and they could have shared more positive interactions to outweigh the negative the rest of the weekend.
Without addressing it and turning it around to begin to create positive interactions, it remains a downward spiral. If your partner has done something to hurt you, it is important to remember to keep connecting with them in positive ways as much as you can. If they offer a point of connection- take it if you can. Accept the positive along with the negative.
Ways To Increase Your Positive Connections:
1. Download Gottman’s Card Deck app. Ask your partner questions and learn their “love map.” This will help you to learn what means the most to them and make positive connections with them.
2. Download the “Love Nudge” app from the 5 love languages website. With or without your partner, set goals for yourself to fill their love tank. These are positive connections.
3. Avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These are detrimental to your relationship. (see Gottman’s website for more on this.)
4. Put your phone down. At least sometimes. This simple act creates space and opportunity for more positive connections.
We don’t live in a world of black and white. We live in the gray. Julie Gottman talks about the “Good Enough” relationship. We don’t have to attain perfection, we just have to do “good enough.”
To expect perfection is preposterous, and in fact, you wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone perfect!
Allow the positive to happen even in the midst of a negative. Make room for it. Create it yourself. There will be negative moments, but you can have a healthy, happy relationship, as long as you have more positive interactions than negative (more than 5 to 1, to be exact.)
If you want help with your relationship, please reach out to us. We can help, and what’s more, we love working with couples to increase their positive interactions and bring their satisfaction levels up.
Be kind to your partner, be kind to yourself.
Take Good Care,
The Phoenix Counseling Collective
***A note on Domestic Violence – If you are in a relationship where you feel that your partner is controlling or attempting to control you, please do not feel as though it is your responsibility to correct the ratio. Please seek help with individual therapy.