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The Present

There’s a “magic ratio” for how often happy couples argue

Dr. Gottman, a psychologist who studies relationships, explains the 5:1 rule.
A couple argues – Photo: geralt via pixabay

Everyone knows couples break up when they fight too much. But what if they don’t fight enough?

Dr. John M. Gottman, a psychologist who’s studied marital stability and relationships for decades, is known for finding that the “magic ratio” of positive and negative interactions in successful relationships is about 5 to 1. That is, couples who stay together tend to compensate for every negative interaction with five times as many positive ones. Gottman calls this his balance theory of relationships.

So, too much fighting leads to breakups. That’s obvious. But what’s interesting about the theory is it implies that one sign of a doomed relationship could be not enough negativity. An article on one of Gottman’s websites elaborates this idea.

This balance theory implies the unusual point of view that negativity is important in healthy relationships. Negativity plays many prosocial functions — for example, culling out interaction patterns that don’t work, renewing courtship over time, etc. Thus, couple therapy should not declare war on negativity. On the contrary, we submit the idea that a relationship without negative affect would be lifeless and boring.

The idea is that because people and environments are always changing, partners must provide one another with enough corrective feedback so they can be “on the same page.”

Of course, it’s not just about the quantity of fighting in a relationship. The style is also important. Gottman and his colleagues found that couples who remained stoic during conflicts actually tended to fare worse than couples that were more “volatile”.

Another negative, dysfunctional pattern that emerged from our longitudinal research was both the absence of escalated negative affect during conflict, and also the absence of any positive affect during conflict. There was a marked lack of affection, shared humor, question-asking, active interest, excitement, joy, support, and empathy.

Conversely, volatile couples who get into lots of heated fights aren’t necessarily doomed to split up. These couples exert a healthy amount of influence on one another, both positively and negatively. But as long as their interactions favor the positive, they tend to enjoy relatively stable relationships over the long term.

The 5:1 ratio also seems to ring true in the business world. Past research has examined the ways in which successful business leadership teams deliver criticism. The results showed that the most successful teams made an average of 5.6 positive comments per every negative one, while the average ratio among the lowest performing teams was just 0.36 to 1.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman interpreted the results in the Harvard Business Review

“So, while a little negative feedback apparently goes a long way, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink.”

Folkman and Zenger went on to add one final point that could apply to any area of life: Negative feedback can prevent you from driving off a cliff.

For a realistic look at what it takes to stay in love, here’s Dr. Helen Fisher:


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