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Improving Marriage: a 5 to 1 investment ideal


“Remember working briefly on your marriage everyday will do more for your health and longevity than working out in a health Club.” John Gottman

“No deposit, no return” words on a coke bottle

The preeminent marital therapist of our time, John Gottman, reports that couples who convey positive messages as compared to negative, critical messages at a ratio of 5/1 are more likely to have healthy relationships. This refers to balancing every negative message to their partners with five positive ones.  Think of the positive messages as a “deposit” and the negative messages as a “withdrawal.”  Gottman describes these positive messages as making kind gestures and saying nice things to the most important person in our life.  A kiss on the cheek, a smile or thank you.  He notes these healthy couples “turn toward” each other and appreciate their partner’s intent even when the deed may fall short.

A so- called “withdrawal” would be critical statements, such as “you didn’t turn the light off” or “you left the drawer open.” If a couple does this at a 1/1 ratio, Gottman notes the relationship is quite unhealthy. This makes sense when you think about it. Who, in fact, do we generally like and want in our life? I’d say people that generally appreciate us for who we are and what we do.

Oddly sometimes we maintain a higher standard for those we love, rather than a more moderate one, leading to a variety of critiques when they don’t meet that standard. The thought seems to be “if I criticize and, remind you enough you will improve.” Couples sometimes, with a bit of embarrassment, tell me they are doing 5/1 in the other direction…five complaints for every appreciation. They seem to think it is their job to bring up every flaw as if their job is to be the best critic possible. Turning this around can be a key to improving the relationship. The comment that “my partner should know” that they are appreciated is often a clue to significant problems. Make sure your partner (and children and friends) know they are appreciated.  A perk to this practice is that the act of noticing positive traits and behaviors in our loved ones, as well as expressing gratitude for them, helps us feel better.  Making the “deposits” is not only good for receiver but also for the giver.

One way to change these patterns is to intentionally develop positive habits that occur on a daily basis. When you leave for work in the morning, take a few moments to ask what your partner has planned for their day.  Say goodbye intentionally and meaningfully.  Similar habits can be developed at times of reuniting and at bed time. These are habits will pay off through the duration of your relationship.  Naturally, the interaction should  be genuine, not just habitual. If 5/1 positive/negative ratio is not happening with your significant other, you will find that the change may be difficult…and I expect the results will be worth the effort.

A last suggestion--don’t keep score. While you may want to tally how many critiques your partner has sent your way, don’t.  Just be sure you make your deposits. Keeping score seems to turn into another way to critique.

Give this a try with your partner, kids and/or friends, and notice how the tone of the relationship begins to turn more pleasant.  Enjoy the benefits!