Imagine you and your spouse or significant other attempting to solve a conflict in your relationship in 15 minutes, while a doctor watches you – and then predicts whether your relationship will last or not.
Dr. John Gottman began doing these kinds of longitudinal studies in the 1970s. He observed married couples, predicted which couples would stay together and which would get a divorce, and followed up with them nine years later. Remarkably, his predictions were right over 90% of the time.
So, what does that tell us about our relationships? To me, it seems that if a neutral observer can predict relationship success, then we can prevent breakups and the pain they cause.
But how can we do that? How do we create bonds that can never be broken? Dr. Gottman said that his discovery was actually very simple. The difference between the couples that would last and the couples that would divorce could all be attributed to the positivity of their communication during conflict. In fact, he believes a specific ratio of positive to negative interactions exists that makes loving relationships last.
That ratio – 5 to 1 – means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a happy and lasting marriage must have five positive interactions. When asked about the nature of the positive interactions during conflict, Dr. Gottman said, “When the masters of marriage are talking about something important, they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.” Negative interactions involved expressions of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, both verbally and nonverbally. For example, eye rolling would be one negative nonverbal behavior. Abdu’l-Baha asked us:
To be silent concerning the faults of others, to pray for them, and to help them, through kindness, to correct their faults. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by J.E. Esselmont in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 83.
No one wants to be vilified or embarrassed for a mistake they’ve made. No one wants to be viewed with disdain for a fault they need help correcting. Although conflicts may be disappointing, the way we handle them doesn’t need to be, as long as we remember to speak with kindness and love. The Baha’i teachings say:
If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one; and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten. – Ibid., p. 286.
In addition to our communication and behavior, we can work to fix our thoughts and attention on only the good, which suggests that the positivity ratio does not just refer to the words we say, but also the thoughts we think. If married couples need a 5:1 positivity to negativity ratio, positive and negative information must not hold equal weight in our minds. According to Psychologist Bridget Grenville-Cleave, “if we’re told two pieces of equally important information about a stranger, one positive and one negative, they don’t balance each other out—we’re more likely to form a negative view of the person than a neutral one.”
For example, on the first day of one of my communication courses last year, my teacher made one positive and one negative comment in the same time frame. He complimented my name at the beginning of the class, but then made fun of vegans at the end of the class – and I am a vegan. After class ended, I had a negative impression of him and actually had to write a poem about the day to release my frustration. The next day, he complimented my analysis of a theory and I started to have more neutral feelings towards him. Weeks later, he looked at me as if he had carefully thought this over, he said, “You really are your name.” As someone who thrives on words of affirmation, such a simple comment meant a lot to me. It made my day to know that he heard and saw me. It made a difference to know that I came across as radiant – ironic, right? After that, we had a positive relationship.
If we have a good experience and then a bad one, we normally feel bad, even if the two experiences have equivalent importance. Studies show that positive and negative emotions are not equal – negative emotions lower our sense of well-being more than positive emotions increase it.
It takes effort to overcome this tendency, but if we truly want to establish lasting relationships with the people around us – whether it’s a spouse, friend, or even a teacher – we can begin to focus our thoughts, words and actions on the positive things about them.
As the Baha’i teachings say:
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 30.