In the realm of interpersonal relationships there is no relationship more studied, more talked about, more written about and more joked about than the relationship between a man and a woman; or as it is often more precisely referred to, marriage. Now I realize I am venturing into extremely dangerous territory here, risking the scorn of women and men alike who won’t take kindly to the point I’m trying to make (assuming I have one, that is), not to mention, the potential wrath of my own wife who might somehow read into this article some sort of thinly veiled personal attack on her – which, by all means, is not the case. Not that I’m saying she’s sensitive or anything, because by all means, she’s not. And not that I’m afraid to speak my mind on such matters, because by all means, I’m not. (This is going to be tougher than I thought.)
Let me cut to the chase. I came across some interesting research from a real relationship expert, a psychologist and author named John Gottman. Gottman has spent close to 30 years studying families and couples to determine the factors that contribute to successful and failed marriages. And he walked away with a very simple conclusion about how to predict the outcome of one’s marriage. He called it the Magic Relationship Ratio. From his years of research Gottman was able to show that a couple’s ratio of positive-to-negative interactions was the greatest predictor of a relationship’s outcome. Specifically, “successful” relationships – defined by Gottman as marriages that last longer than 7-10 years (no wisecracks, please!) - require a ratio of at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction within the relationship. In business terms they would call that the “break-even” point. Gottman claims that with 90% accuracy he can predict that a relationship which has a positive-to-negative interaction ratio of 1 to 1 or lower will end in divorce.
Gottman says that the most highly successful relationships - his so-called “Masters of Marriage” who stay together 20 years or more - have a 20-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions (there’s probably a Rodney Dangerfield joke to be made here, but I’ll resist the temptation). And while I know of many people in what I perceive to be strong marriages, I couldn’t imagine too many couples who achieve that ratio(although perhaps the Stepford Wives gave it a run). On the other end, I could certainly imagine where having no better than a 1-to-1 ratio would make for an extremely unpleasant environment for any relationship. This is clearly a ratio where just staying even is not healthy for anyone. And that’s especially true when you look at the four major sources of those negative interactions as summarized by Gottman:
Criticism – “What kind of person are you?”
Contempt – “I would never stoop as low as you did.”
Defensiveness – “Yeah, but what about what you did?”
Stonewalling – Just shutting down and tuning out.
Most of us would be guilty as charged of engaging in any number of the above. But according to Gottman, that’s not really the problem. In fact, Gottman tells us that it’s humanly necessary to have the negative “1″ in the 5-to-1 or even the 20-to-1 ratios. Because the issue is about the relative frequency of those negative comments and behaviors, not whether they exist at all. And that’s where the “magic” of the Magic Relationship Ratio comes into play.
So where does this leave us? Well, I actually believe that Gottman’s 5-to-1 rule of thumb is universally applicable to the health of all relationships, not just the marital one. And that’s what I found most interesting about it. We know that nobody likes to be ignored or treated with contempt and criticism. Our human preference is to be treated with kindness and respect. It’s what makes us feel good and motivates us to try harder in anything we do. Charles Schwab attributed his business success to recognizing this basic human truth. As he once said, “There is nothing else that kills the ambitions of a person than the criticisms of (others)…therefore I am anxious to praise and loath to find fault.” I’ll bet Schwab’s ratio was above the 5-to-1 mark in his business relationships.
The great thing about Gottman’s ratio is its simplicity. Anyone of us can use it as a silent reference tool every single day. All we have to do is keep a mental score sheet in the back of our minds. And that goes for using it with our spouses, our kids, our friends and our co-workers.
So the next time we hear ourselves throwing out a “hey-what-the-hell’s-wrong-with-you!” or a “you-can’t-do-anything-right!,” we probably want to have an inventory of at least 5 “nice-jobs!” or “looking-good-todays” at the ready. Otherwise we run the risk of having our healthy relationships slip below the “magic” break-even point towards the breaking point. And for our valuable relationships, nobody wants those odds.