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The Magic Ratio

In the early 1980’s the American Clinical Psychologist John Gottmann and his colleague Robert Levenson conducted what was to be the most in depth research into couples relationships ever conducted. Unlike most existing studies that had focused on asking couples questions about their relationship, their work was based on direct observation of the couples. In their research at the University of Washington, they brought couples into an observation facility that became dubbed ‘the love lab’. They also observed couples living in an apartment together over a week. A kind of pre-cursor to the big brother house – but just with your partner and no opportunity to nominate them for eviction!

Six years later they re-visited the couples and classified them as either happily together or unhappy / separated. They then correlated these relationship outcomes with their earlier observational data and their findings are FASCINATING and quite surprising!

They found that the greatest predictor of future relational unhappiness or breakdown is not associated with the level of the couples differences; nor to the level of conflict in their relationship; nor to the particular styles in which they disagree or fight… rather they found that the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict / disagreements. They even found a very specific ratio and that is 5:1. That is they found that stable couples have five or more positive interactions for every negative one.

Irreconcilable Conflict

One of the most interesting takeaways from Gottman’s research is his finding that most things that couples identify as relationship problems will never get resolved because they are what he terms ‘perpetual problems’. These are issues that are rooted in inherent personality differences between partners. He found that 69% of so called ‘problems’ are perpetual and therefore can never be resolved as such. What is therefore essential is how couples learn to manage the inevitable conflict that emerges from these differences.

Living with Conflict

Gottman found a range of different styles for resolving conflicts. One style, that he termed ‘validating’, is characterised by the couple investing significant time to understand and affirm each other’s positions. Another, termed ‘avoidant’ is marked by the couple largely agreeing to disagree. Finally the ‘volatile’ style is based on a much more expressive statement of the different positions.

Interestingly Gottman found that although the different styles have their different strengths and weaknesses, they could all be successful to the extent that they allow the couple to achieve the right balance of positive and negative interactions – that 5:1 ratio.

Why is some negativity important 

Whilst Gottman discovered the importance of positive interactions during conflict – he also argues that a certain degree of negativity is needed in the ecology of a relationship in order for it to thrive. When legitimate grievances, complaints and differences are aired, there will inevitably be an element of negativity. Gottman argues that the expression of such discontent, although potentially painful in the short term, is essential to the long-term health of the relationship. He suggests that it is wrong to equate relational happiness to a low level of conflict, and that conflict gives a key opportunity for the relationship to grow.

One of the key themes that we explore at One:Retreat is desire. Conflict is part of the dance of distance and intimacy in relationships that can be a spark to desire. Although it can be difficult during a moment of conflict, when we can feel alienated from our partner, there is also in that moment of conflict the potential to see them asserting something of themselves, their essence, personality and values that we can also find attractive. It is perhaps not surprising that Gottman found that the most expressive couples, those that he termed ‘volatile’, have the most fun making up! 🙂

When negativity becomes dangerous

Through Gottmann’s work he identified four very specific types of behaviour during conflict, which if they became habitual could really threaten the relationship. If these take root without the balance of at least a 5:1 ratio, then he argues that it signifies real danger for the health of the relationship. He calls these behaviours the ‘four horsemen’ and they are – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. You can see a short video introducing them here.

How to remain positive?

Gottman found that there are a range of strategies that stable couples are able to use in order to maintain positivity and intimacy during conflict. They include:

  • Remaining interested and turning towards your partner
  • Expressing affection (in any way your partner is willing to accept during conflict!)
  • Finding any opportunities for agreement where they exist
  • Accepting the legitimacy of your partners perspective
  • Empathising with your partner’s feelings
  • Apologising for anything that you can own
  • Try to keep good humour and laugh together (not easy if you feel like your partner is being an arse!)
  • Initiating as many ‘bids’ as you can (a bid is the term that Gottman uses for any attempt, whether verbal or non-verbal, to connect with your partner)


 Checking Your Ratio

OK, so lots of theory so far. Now to get practical – how can you check the ratio in your own relationship? Here are a few suggestions to try:

  • When you notice that you are entering a conflict situation – sense check how you are showing up. Are there any signs of the 4 Horseman? You can choose to make adjustments.
  • Notice the positive interactions that you are able to maintain during conflict. Introduce some more and respond positively to any bids that your partner makes.
  • Try keeping a journal of your relationship over a week. Make brief notes on the positive and negative interactions. What is your ratio? What does that ratio and the type of interactions tell you about what you can work to improve. Try repeating the exercise for another week. We’d be really interested to hear how you get on!

Richard Elliott

Husband, father, teacher, coach & philanthropist. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a founder of the Pickwell Foundation – a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a Diploma in Business, Executive & Life Coaching and a background in Post 16 Education in which he taught and managed Social Science subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations. 

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