Does Research Give Usa Clue How To Have A Happier Relationship

How’s the 5-1 Ratio in Your Relationship?

As a matter of fact, several years ago a psychologist at the University of Washington, Dr. John Gottman, was creative and smart enough to figure out how to do actual research with real couples in his “marriage lab”. He was onto “reality marriage lab” before “reality TV” was invented! Figuring out how to do this, in itself, was quite an accomplishment, and he was able to shed some very useful light on the subject. Until then, all of our work with couples was based on clinical experience. This was valuable, but it was particularly helpful to have research that added significantly to our knowledge.

Gottman was trying to understand what the key factors were that distinguished happily married couples from unhappy couples, whether they later divorced or just stayed unhappily together. I’d like to share with you two of the most important things he discovered in his lab.

First of all, he found that there was a very clear relationship between the ratio of positive versus negative things that couples said and marital satisfaction. We all say nice things to our partners, and not so nice things. These things can be obvious compliments or criticisms. Or they can be things we say to our partner that have a negative tone or a positive tone. Consistently, the couples who were happy in their relationship had a ratio of five positive things said for every one negative. Five to one.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself whether in your relationship there is a ratio of five positive statements for every one not-so-positive one. If you’re not doing this well, you may feel discouraged. However, this information is good because it gives you something very specific, very tangible, that you can do to improve your relationship and increase it’s likelihood of success. Work on reducing the negative comments. Work on increasing the nice things you say. It really makes a difference! And if you start doing this, it is likely that your partner will also start changing the balance of positive to negative things said, because you did! (The only way I know of to change someone else’s behavior is to change how we interact with them. When we say more positive things to them, they start saying more positive things to us.)

The second thing that Gottman found distinguished happy couples from unhappy ones was their ability to successfully make what he calls “repair attempts”. A repair attempt is something – anything – that we do, when things are not going well, to make them go better. Even the happiest of couples have their bad moments. When they’re having one of those moments, happy couples have ways to turn it around, to repair the situation. This can be as simple as an “I’m sorry”; or “This isn’t going well; let’s start over”; or “I might be wrong here”(!); or “Please just hear what I’m saying”. It can be humor; “Let’s both apologize – you go first!”. It can be loving, as in “I really love you and I feel bad that we’re having this problem. Let’s see what we can do to make it better.” Some couples develop their own little rituals for stopping the negativity; little code words or touches.

By watching for these two clues – the ratio of positive to negative and the ability to make successful repairs – Dr. Gottman was able to predict with a 94% level of accuracy which couples would be successful and which would not. This is astonishing, but the good news is that it gives us a tangible, specific way to check how we are doing. So, take a moment to think about your relationship given this information, and ask yourself, “How are we doing?”

Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at

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