The ‘magic ratio’ in relationships

Couple holding hands.
Forget the movies - even the best relationships require hard work.

If relationships are important, then romantic relationships are especially so. How can you ensure your relationship with your partner is strong, healthy and loving?


Hollywood movies routinely portray romantic relationships in a fairytale happy-ever-after fashion, but the reality is even the best relationships require hard work. If you think that’s an unromantic sentiment, well, here’s another one – when it comes to relationships, it pays to think scientifically.


What I mean by that is that research from relationship expert Dr John Gottman indicates there is a very specific formula which predicts whether a couple are likely to be generally happy or unhappy. The magic ratio, as Gottman calls it, is 5:1 – you want to have roughly five positive interactions for every negative exchange. All couples argue, but happy couples make up for the negative moments by experiencing multiple positive moments. Unhappy couples tend to have fewer positive interactions, while the ratio tends to be 1:1 or less among couples on the verge of breaking up.


The fact you need multiple positives to compensate for one negative might seem unfair, but it’s not surprising if you think about it. If a friend says something kind to you and follows this with an unkind remark, which are you likely to dwell on? If your boss praises one aspect of your work but criticises another aspect, which comment are you more likely to focus on? If you’re at a party and one person says you look great but another says your hair is a mess, which comment is more likely to linger in your mind? As humans, we’re hard-wired to spot the negatives. Indeed, research indicates even young babies have a negativity bias, one that increases over time. As a result, you need multiple positive experiences to make up for one negative.



Men holding hands.
Couples often overlook simple opportunities to increase their positive bond.

Given the power of negative interactions, you might think: OK, I really need to get my partner to quit his most irritating habits and I’ll try and do likewise. In her book The Healthy Mind Tooolkit, psychologist and CBT expert Dr Alice Boyes points out that couples often focus on reducing their arguments but overlook opportunities to increase their 'positive bond'.


In fact, the first thing you should focus on is improving that positive bond; without it, tensions are likely to fester and arguments will become more destructive.


For example, imagine you’ve had a wonderful holiday with your partner full of close, loving moments. If an argument breaks out, both of you are likely to make a greater effort to repair things because of the bond resulting from those shared intimacies. In contrast, if you’ve had precious few positive interactions recently, you’re more likely to react in a jaded “here we go again” fashion; the emotional tone of the argument is likely to be harsher and more unforgiving.


A ‘negative spiral’ can develop, notes Dr Boyes. When a couple’s positive bond is low, they don’t feel like being warm and loving, so they withhold warmth and act more coldly towards each other. This causes the positive bond to weaken further; arguments increase; the absence of a cooperative spirit means the couple are slow to reconnect and move on. In contrast, with a positive spiral, a couple will act more positively towards each other, which helps them to feel more loving. Even when they argue, the emotional tone is likely to be less severe, with both parties making an effort to repair things.


So, increasing that positive bond is crucial. As Dr Boyes points out, the 'psychological thorn' is you won’t feel like being warm when your bond is lacking. 'If you wait until you feel like it, your relationship will go further downhill', she notes, so you have to 'act loving to feel more loving.'


In my next column, I’ll take a look at some simple tips to increase that positive bond. Of course, the best person to come up with ideas is you, as you (hopefully) know what works for you and your partner. Small, everyday positives can make such a difference, turning that negative spiral into a positive spiral and sustaining you both when things get heated.


(First published in Southern Star on 01/10/2020).