May 22, 2024

Relationships and the Magic Ratio

By Zachariah Seifert
Mental Health & Wellbeing

Relationships are Challenging

Have you ever had a really bad day? A day where you may be confused about how it went downhill so quickly? Have you ever looked back at how things unfolded, reflected on how it got to a specific point, and tried to understand how to avoid the same outcome in the future? Did you notice anything? What about micro interactions, thoughts, words, etc.? Could these have gone differently? Can you see a completely different outcome if they did? This happens all the time within relationships and communication between people.

I would imagine that we have all been there; angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, etc. The struggle to understand how we got to a specific emotional state is sometimes haunting. If you can analyze the various details, you may find a fascinating response; as well as a potential solution to avoid the same outcome in the future. Negativity is extremely accessible; it might just be unlimited. The amount of potential negativity that we can experience in a day seems overwhelming. We see this in media coverage (after all, scandal sells) and news, work, school, and so many places. We also see it specifically within relationships.

Research to Help Make Sense of it All

Have you ever heard of the “Fight or Flight” response? If you have, you know that there is a negative stimulant that engages this response physiologically, usually the proverbial “Bear in the Woods” OR “Danger”. Throughout time, humans have become conditioned to respond at a heightened level of awareness to those negative stimulants that feel unsafe. This tends to be extremely helpful when life and death are in the balance. However, the response can create harm in situations that are not directly linked to a life and death scenario (for example, in relationship conflict). No wonder we’re so hyper focused on the negativity all around us! We want to survive! Ultimately, the adaptation is helpful as a survival mechanism, but often holds people back in relationships.

Dr. John Gottman and Robert Levenson began research on relational conflict in the 1970’s aimed at understanding patterns, pitfalls, and communication challenges. The research was later used to help couples work through relationship struggles in healthy and helpful ways. Their findings were simple, but critical in helping understand how to navigate conflict and succeed at repair within relationships. The central difference between happy and unhappy couples was found to be the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. This “magic ratio” is 5 positive interactions to 1 negative interaction. So, for each negative interaction in a relationship, successful relationships have five (or more) positive interactions. These positive interactions are working to repair the hurt and emotional load of the negative interaction. The negative interactions seem to be more obvious based on the “Fight or Flight” model, so utilizing the positive counter interactions is crucial in repairing conflicts. .

(If you are looking for more to understand the basis of “Negative Interactions” I would point you in the direction of another Gottman concept, “the 4 Horsemen” of the Apocalypse. 4 concepts that are dangerous to the health of a relationship: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.)

Application to Everyday Scenarios

To combat the negativity potential of interactions within relationships, you need a plan. Curiosity and humility are your best friends in this context. However, it is not always that simple; you may need more of a blueprint that can support navigating specific conflicts in real time. Successful relationship navigators tend to begin conflict more softly, while making repairs that encourage the positive aspects of the relationship. Positive aspect encouragers:

  • Show interest – Practice listening intently, recognize your non-verbal tendencies (eyes, facial expressions, posture, etc.), work to understand not just hear, be curious, etc.
  • Provide affection – What does romance look like for you? Physical touch like hand holding, hugging, kissing, etc. are all great ways to show affection.
  • Indicate to your partner that they matter – “Small Things Often” (another Gottman technique), holding them, picking up a meal or making a meal, taking a chore from their plate, etc. These little sacrifices show your partner that they matter.
  • Show appreciation – Identify good moments and positive outcomes, verbalizing positive thoughts about your partner, and providing positive affirmations are all ways to show that you appreciate your partner.
  • Seek to agree – Find opportunities to identify areas where you agree, development of the alliance. This demonstrates that not everything in the relationship is a disagreement or conflict. In fact, it allows a deepening of closeness to occur because you can recognize things that you do agree on when in a fight/conflict you often do not.
  • Practice empathy – Empathy is a skill that requires effort. Provide a verbalization of understanding about what your partner is going through and confirm if you are correct. Show empathy through facial expression, touch, or physically with a motion.
  • Play – this can include being silly, making jokes, laughing together, etc. Do this while remaining respectful and appreciative of your partner.

It is important to stay mindful of how conflict arrives in your relationships. This allows you to keep these challenges in perspective while working on resolving core issues. Why not develop a plan to reduce lasting tensions and manage hurdles more effectively? If you aim at the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 you can find success in developing closeness, trust, and safety within your relationship. Conflict is a natural part of relationships and will ebb and flow within relationship seasons. Trying to better understand and navigate conflict can save you time, increase happiness, and allow a more fulfilling and healthy relationship long term.

If this sounds like you or you want to find out more about navigating conflict in your relationship, please reach out to us today!

Written By

Zachariah Seifert

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