John and Julie Gottman are renowned clinical psychologists and researchers who have dedicated decades to discovering why some marriages last and others fall apart.
The two interviewed more than 3,000 couples and followed some of them for 20 years. They also studied over 40,000 couples who are about to start couples therapy.
In their recently released book “The Love Prescription: 7 Days to More Intimacy, Connection, and Joy,” they synthesize years of data into a blueprint that can heal a faltering relationship or help maintain a thriving one.
“What we discovered is that there are universal factors that make or break a relationship, that predict whether or not a couple will remain happy,” they write.
In one of their largest longitudinal studies, they discovered that there is a mathematical equation that “makes you or breaks you” in a marriage: the ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict must be five. for a.
“We observed pairs, recorded the data, and then released them into the wild,” they write. “Six years later, we followed. And lo and behold, it was the couples who had maintained at least a five-to-one ratio (or more!) during the conflict who were still happily together, still feeling the love.”
What is a positive interaction and what is a negative interaction?
Much of the couple’s research is conducted through the Gottman Love Lab, a University of Washington research center that John co-founded in the 1980s.
For this study, the Gottmans asked couples to come into the lab and try to resolve a disagreement in 15 minutes. They recorded the conflict, watched the tapes, and classified each interaction as positive or negative.
A smile, touching the other person’s hand, saying “I understand” – everything is positive. Making an unpleasant remark, blaming or acting disinterestedly are classified as negative.
When they came back with the couples six years later, those whose ratio of positive/negative interactions was at least five to one were much better off.
“Negativity has a lot more power”
Why such an imbalance? Why can’t making a little joke cancel out raising your voice? Simply put, negativity has more impact.
“Negativity has far more power to inflict damage and cause pain than positivity to heal and bring you closer,” they write.
They also found that intent did not matter. Even if your intention is positive, yelling at your partner is a negative interaction.
“The difference between extremely unhappy couples and very happy couples came down to one simple thing: happy couples were nicer when they talked to each other,” they write. “They treated each other more gently, without criticism, contempt or sarcasm.”
“It’s a gift for you too”
Outside of disputes, that ratio jumps even higher, they found. In everyday life, you need at least 20 positive interactions for every negative interaction. This is the “masters of love” ratio maintained.
To create so much positivity, you have to admire your partner, they write, and express that admiration to them. If you like how they tell you about their day or how much they enjoy their morning routine, tell them.
“Don’t let these thoughts and feelings pass without sharing them with your partner,” they write. “Catch them; give them to your partner as a small gift. It’s also a gift for you.”
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