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Marriage

This Is How The 5:1 Ratio Can Keep Your Marriage Healthy

During an interview not too long ago, someone asked me a question that I think more therapists and life coaches (hell, people who work in the mental health field on any level, to be honest) should be asked more often: “So Shellie, how do you not become jaded when working with people who complain a lot?”

LISTEN. That really is a layered question because, when you work with couples, it is indeed true (unfortunately) that a lot of them come to you to save their marriage once it’s on life support instead of doing routine maintenance as they would when it comes to changing the oil in their car. So, if you’re considering hitting up a marriage “expert,” first, we can’t do more work than you’re willing to (and boy, that will preach!). Secondly, the effort we put in will be futile if both parties aren’t willing to take some personal accountability for their actions or lack thereof (check out “What It Actually Means To 'Hold Yourself Accountable'”).


Okay, but back to what I was asked. For one thing, I receive confirmations, almost on a daily basis, that I am living out my purpose — and when you know that you’re doing what you were put on the planet to do, that fuels you like nothing else can or will. Secondly, my clients know that I am uber-focused on working together to find solutions within each and every session; the “Hmm…tell me more about that” while saying nothing coach, I am not. Third, I am careful about the kind of energy I take in on the days when I have sessions (especially if it’s gonna be more than one), from who I talk to on the phone, what I watch on television, and what I consume online. And finally, a sistah is good for some naps. Naps are king.

As for my third point, did you catch that in order for me to help people effectively, I have to be intentional about avoiding toxicity and negativity? And you know what? When it comes to keeping your marriage healthy, the same mindset must be considered. One way to do that is to apply what is called the “5:1 Ratio.” And that is just what we’re gonna get into today.

The Magic Ratio: The 5:1 Ratio in Relationships

What Is the 5:1 Ratio in Marriage All About?

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So…some backstory on the 5:1 Ratio. Back in the 70s, a man by the name of Dr. Robert Levenson and another man by the name of Dr. John Gottman decided to conduct some studies on how people resolve conflict. What they would ask couples to do is strive to resolve an issue that they were having in no more than 15 minutes (hmph…some of y’all like to hold grudges for days on end, so I already know this would be quite the feat…SMDH).

After spending several years evaluating this practice, they were able to predict which couples would be able to go the distance vs. which ones would probably end up in divorce court with an amazing 90 percent accuracy rate. The conclusion that they came to is healthy/happy couples practice the 5:1 Ratio while unhealthy/unhappy couples do not.

And just what is the 5:1 Ratio? What it all boils down to is for a marriage to thrive — especially on a mental and emotional level — there needs to be five positive interactions for every one negative interaction that transpires.

For instance, if you and your husband get into a disagreement about household chores, that is the “one” negative, yet if you’re able to crack jokes, laugh, exchange some level of intimacy, playfully tease, and hear each other out without any cynicism or sarcasm, that counts as “five” positives — and so long as that type of 5-to-1 engaging is going on, you should be (relatively) fine.

Oh, I know for a fact that there are all kinds of truth up in this because, even in my sessions, I’ve got clients who can give me about 10 negative interactions in under 60 minutes while getting them to say or do anything positive is like performing an impromptu root canal on them. Why is that the case? I think a part of it has to do with how much negativity bias goes down in relationships. Let me explain.

How to Keep Negativity Bias from Infecting Your Marriage

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“Leaning into the negative” is actually a real thing; it’s called negativity bias. It basically means that humans tend to respond/react to negative way stronger than they do to positive stuff. That’s why, for instance, if someone asks you to list 10 things that you like about yourself vs. 10 things that you don’t, not only will it (probably) be easier for you to run down the things that you don’t like, you will probably start out with those things as well.

Yeah, negativity bias is wild because if you were to read up on it, you’d learn that it’s why a lot of us find bad news to hold more truth and merit to it than good news and/or why people have a hard time reaching a goal or completing a plan because they tend to be more focused on what they will lose by putting forth the effort than what they actually stand to gain. So, if just one person struggles with staying on top of not “falling victim” to negativity bias…think how much more effort it takes to not let it influence you when it comes to your relationships with other people. Especially your marriage.

For instance, if your husband comes home in a bad mood, think about how much easier it is to absorb his negative energy due to y’all’s emotional closeness and the physical proximity of his presence alone. Before you know it, now you both are salty as hell. Then, if you decide to have a conversation about the household budget (which is usually not the most comfortable conversation to have, even on the best of days) and the two of you are already in a “glass half empty kind of mood” — here comes assuming, accusing and gaslighting. See what I mean?

This is a part of the reason why premarital counseling is so important because, real talk, one reason why so many marriages fail is because one or both people were too negative for that kind of commitment in the first place. Let’s be real: how are you going to compromise, be flexible, not be selfish, be solutions-oriented, and be open to seeing things from another person’s perspective if you permeate negative energy all over the place? YOU’RE NOT.

So, while we’re here, if you’re reading this and you happen to be unmarried yet are in a serious relationship, here are some signs that you and/or your partner are a very negative type of individual:

  • You tend to look at things from a worst-case-scenario perspective;
  • You don’t deal with stress well;
  • You want to control everything;
  • You use “always” and “never” a lot (which means that you see things in extremes, which isn’t healthy);
  • You’re inflexible;
  • You hardly ever see the silver lining or bright side of things;
  • You critique everything and everyone;
  • You don’t know how to compromise or negotiate;
  • Damn near every conversation turns into a debate;
  • You’re draining to be around.

If you can relate to three or more of these traits, the good news is you can change things around (with the help of some therapy and/or life coaching)…if you choose to. The challenging news is you really should wait before trying to take your relationship to the next level. Marriage already requires quite a bit of energy and effort — it’s already gonna stretch and challenge you in ways that no other relationship (in your entire life) will; if you’re a negative person, you’re already setting yourself up to see a judge grant you a divorce someday. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

Okay, but what if you’re already married, you didn’t really know as much about how negativity can infect your union and you want some help to make things better? Well, now that you know what the 5:1 Ratio is, let’s talk about a few ways that you can implement it — starting now. Like…right now.

The Magic Ratio: How to Use the 5:1 Ratio in Relationships

5 Tips for Effectively Applying the 5:1 Ratio to Your Relationship. Starting Today.

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1. Tell your partner what you appreciate about them. Author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. once said, “Don’t forget; a person’s greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated.” Appreciation is about making someone feel valued; it’s about letting them know what, about them, you are grateful for. I guarantee you that if you show appreciation to your partner, in the midst of whatever conflict or issues may be transpiring, it’s going to make things go over more smoothly. It tends to make working through matters easier, too, because they know that you see the good that they bring to the table in the midst of the challenges that are happening.

2. Stop taking them and/or yourself so seriously. Two things that are true about conflict: it’s gonna happen, and it’s not the end of the world. Listen, the couples in my world who hold grudges for days (which is silly and counterproductive; I can’t say that enough) are the ones who either take themselves or their partner way too seriously. What I mean by that is, they’re wound up (or expect their partner to be), they can’t take a joke (or won’t “let” their partner make one), and/or they would rather be right than happy (have mercy!) You are going to create more problems than resolve the ones that you have if everything is so strict and rigid for you. In other words, goodness — learn to lighten up.

3. Value your partner’s perspective. Real talk, if you think that you’re the only one who has wisdom, insight, perspective, truth, and knowledge — why did you get married? And if you can’t respect where your partner is coming from, whether you agree with them or not — again, why did you get married? A part of the purpose of marriage is to learn from the person YOU CHOSE and that requires listening, having an open mind, and bringing some humility into the conversation(s). I promise you that so much conflict can be nipped in that 15-minute window that I mentioned earlier if more husbands and wives were willing to apply this point right here alone, chile.

4. Be physically affectionate. Manipulating and/or weaponizing intimacy is not only counterproductive; it’s mean. Not only that but there are too many articles out there that support the fact that if you want to feel closer to your partner, touch helps to make that happen. Now, am I saying that every time there’s conflict you should have sex? Eh. Everything needs balance (check out “Make-Up Sex Might Be Doing Your Relationship More Harm Than Good”). What I am saying is…watch your body language during conflict (check out “15 Relational Body Language Cues You Definitely Shouldn't Ignore”) and be open to exchanging a kiss or hug once the discussion ends. It’s a way of saying, “I still got you even though this is a bit strained right now.” And when you’re married, that’s something that should be consistently conveyed.

5. Seek a solution. Again, if you’re unmarried and reading this, please DO NOT marry someone who isn’t a solutions-oriented type of person. Lawd, the number of clients I have who seem to enjoy wallowing in drama, tension, and problems is its own pandemic. Some are like that because they are naturally negative people. Others are like that because they were never taught how to see things from a “glass half full” angle. Still, others are like that because they aren’t emotionally intelligent and self-aware enough to get that staying in conflict is mentally draining and such a waste of time. Are you and your man gonna have conflict? 1000 percent. You can master the 5:1 Ratio, in part, by trying to find a solution as soon as absolutely possible, though.

____

In life, conflict comes. That’s just the way it is. Hopefully, now that you’re aware of the 5:1 Ratio approach, you’ve got a cheat code for bringing peace into your relationship quicker than you may have before.

Remember: for one negative action, bring in five positive reactions. Watch how your marriage flourishes because of it. Science says so.

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Featured image by Georgijevic/Getty Images

 

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