Contrary to popular belief, even the happiest couples argue. In fact, a willingness to discuss and work through relationship problems is essential for any marriage to succeed. But even as they argue, successful couples find ways to “repair” their dynamic, injecting positivity into their interactions.
In a now-famous study, relationship psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues observed and measured the number of positive interactions and negative interactions in an argument between a married couple and found that couples who maintained a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones were more likely to stay together. By measuring this “positivity ratio,” Gottman found, he could predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether a couple would stay together.
First, Gottman and a colleague recruited married couples, brought them into the lab, and asked them to revisit the topic of their most recent argument as a video camera recorded their conversations. As the couples argued, researchers observed and coded their conversations, awarding each spouse one “point” for every positive contribution, and subtracting one point for every negative contribution.
Some couples communicated about their differences with mutual respect and affection. By making attempts at warmth, humor, collaboration, and compromise—including touching, laughing, and giving compliments even in the midst of the most heated argument—they maintained a positivity ratio of 5:1 or better. As these couples talked, their conversation became more and more positive. Gottman deemed them to be at “low risk” for divorce.
Other couples had a low positive-to-negative ratio, displaying sarcasm, contempt, defensiveness, and criticism for each other as they argued. Their conversations were negative spirals, becoming more and more acrimonious with every passing minute. These couples were deemed “high-risk.”
When the researchers followed up with the couples four years later, they found that 56 percent of high-risk couples were divorced or separated, compared to only 24 percent among the low-risk group. Couples who failed to maintain a 5:1 positivity ratio, in other words, were twice as likely to see their marriages fail.
Other research by Gottman has found that couples in happy marriages tend to support each other, laugh together, and withhold comments that might hurt the other person’s feelings, whereas less satisfied couples disagree more, have less humor and laughter, say fewer helpful and supportive comments, and criticize each other more.
In a third study, Gottman found that couples who maintained a high number of positive interactions had lower blood pressure and a less negative physiological response to negative interactions when they occurred.
Interactions didn’t need to be grand romantic gestures for Gottman to consider them “positive.” Rather, most positive interactions involved small gestures of support, attention, or affection. Gottman found that couples invite these gestures from each other using “bids for attention.” Suppose a husband says to his wife, “You know, I’m still on the fence about whether I should buy that dress shirt.” If his wife responds with “uh huh,” his bid for attention has failed. If instead she says, “Well, I think you’d look nice in that shirt,” then his bid for attention has succeeded. The best advice, Gottman says, is to “Turn toward each other instead of away”.
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2. Carrére, S., Buehlman, K., Gottman, J., Coan, J., & Ruckstuhl, L. (2000). Predicting marital stability and divorce in newlywed couples. Journal Of Family Psychology, 14, 42-58.
3. Gottman, J. & Notarius, C. (2000). Decade review: Observing marital interaction. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 927-947.
4. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.