One researcher stands above all others when it comes to understanding intimate relationships—John Gottman. His incredibly persuasive findings are based on years of deeply observing couples interact.
Dr. Gottman has found that thriving, happy couples have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Ratios of positive to negative interactions less than three to one are deadly to long-term partnerships. This finding is not so shocking when examined.
In the practical activity of normal family life, there are perhaps very many entirely neutral interactions—normal life. We share household duties, pass food at the table, watch TV, etc. Our discussions may be instrumental to getting things done: “Please pass the salt”, “did you buy milk?”, etc. These conversations may neither generate positivity nor negativity. When an interaction is negative, it stands out in our experience. We have a twinge (or worse) of negative emotion—anger, disappointment, shame, or hurt. We do not recover readily from powerfully negative interactions. If our spouse yells at us or uses derogatory language towards us, it carries a major weight. Thus the necessity for a high positive to negative ratio of five to one—it takes a lot of positive interactions to counteract relatively few negative interactions. Achieving these high ratios make for a happy relationship.
Manufacturing this high ratio is something we can work towards. Obviously contributing more positive comments is important, but the weight of the negative interactions requires us to give considerable attention to preventing our speech from detracting from relationships. This means we must avoid harsh judgments and criticism whenever possible. (However, abuse is not to be tolerated and calls for action separate from the context of this discussion). We are all guilty of many small transgressions—an item of laundry left out, toothpaste on the bathroom counter, being a bit late without calling, forgetting to buy milk . . . Can we overlook the weaknesses and foibles of the people we love? If not to these people, then to whom can we be gracious? Oddly, it is often easier (more socially expected) to not comment on errors made by mere acquaintances. Accordingly we sometimes feel the need to point out “errors” of loved ones.
What a tremendous gift it is to give your loved ones real acceptance. To be gracious. To cut them some slack. To overlook minor errors and small transgressions. What would this do for the people you love? Your company would be a time and place of warmth, trust, and safety. This is advice I find remarkably difficult to live by. Yet when I can mindfully lay off my family members’ faults for even a couple days, I notice a positive change in the environment. If an occasional mistake becomes a regular problem, then perhaps you do need to raise it. All relationships occasionally require honest communication to sort out points of tension. Choose carefully when and if this is really necessary. How impressive and generous would it be if you could raise the mistake outside of the immediate context of the problem? Instead of barking as you see the sock fall to the floor, could you wait 20 minutes or more to a moment of relative tranquility? Then with calm and love state your need from the perspective of your experience. The “error” is not about “your slob” of a spouse, rather it is about your own felt experience. “Honey, when I see your socks on the floor, I feel discouraged. I like the house to be clean and I would be grateful if you could pick up after yourself.” Then leave it alone. If your spouse’s worst transgressions are relatively minor, why jeopardize the positivity ratio with unnecessary criticism and judgment. Genuinely let it go.
Avoiding negative speech as much as possible will substantially add to the quality of most relationships. Conversely adding to the positive side of the equation may also be easier than you think. Consider how much neutral activity occurs that neither positively or negatively affects your relationship. There is ample opportunity in the mundane to appreciate the blessings of people in your life.
I try not to criticize my two sons, although failing to ever do so would be poor parenting. However, when I am conscious of how I want our interactions to be (that is, overwhelmingly positive), I see so much opportunity to increase the kindness between us. Of course, I am very fortunate in that my two boys are generally most amicable young men. Still, I want them to know that I see that. I do a lot of cooking and I usually enlist the help of one or both of the boys. I observe the shape and length of the cut of the vegetable as being bite-sized. I notice and observe the way cutlery is laid out—straight and in proper order. I thank them for their assistance and note how easy dinner preparation was with their help. I point out simply what is true—often without a lot of judgment—just the facts. They feel accomplished, noticed, and appreciated. I comment on their doing homework, their speediness of getting going in the morning, their investment in their friends—I notice who they are which is most obviously expressed in what they do. They know I care. When I am at my best, my interactions are positive and frequent—even and importantly through the mundane, everyday experiences of our shared lives.
Are there opportunities with your loved ones to increase the positivity in everyday, ordinary activity? Seize it if you can. Your example, consistently given, will also significantly influence their behavior towards you.
Act kindly and politely: This point may seem too obvious. Close loving relationships benefit from generosity and consistent civility. You know the expression “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”. Yet the benefit of kindness may be greater than you think. Yes, your kind actions may endear others to you. This is mostly true and rewarding. However, the research shows very clearly your acts of kindness are their own reward to you! When you act kindly towards another person, you feel better about yourself. You feel not only love in your expression of generosity, but you have an appropriate surge of pride. This pride is both because you appreciate your own kind intention and also because your gift is real and meaningful to another.
When you act kindly, your self-esteem goes up. Your behavior is consistent with what you know are the better qualities of humanity. To be generous to others is an admirable action. We appreciate this so much that there are countless YouTube videos of people simply being nice to others. Why do millions of people watch these videos? Because simply witnessing kindness makes us feel good. Of course, being kind is even more gratifying.
Positive interactions with your loved ones will increase with each kind act. Particularly pleasant and unexpected gestures may make a big emotional impact—flowers for no reason, or preparing someone’s favorite dinner served on the best dishes. Actions like these may create a halo of positivity over an entire household for days. Surprisingly though, your kindnesses that go unnoticed can also be powerful. If you act generously from your heart—as an expression of love—then you feel better even if your loved ones don’t recognize the gift they received.
Increasing your own well-being by investing in your closest relationships is a certain winner. Few happiness interventions are as well founded in the positive psychology research. Therefore, don’t take your loved ones for granted. I moved to my current city to be closer to my mom and two of my siblings. I try to ensure that my two sons and I regularly spend time altogether. We eat family meals regularly—the kind where you sit around the table, with no TV on. We plan activities on the weekends. We play cards. We hang out. My teenagers are so accustomed to this that I expect they don’t often consider how out of step they are with many of their peers.
Give the most generous thing you can give to your loved ones. Give them your time. Commit to regular activities together. If there are strains in your relationships, time together is not an instant cure but it is the surest way to truly cement a lasting committed bond.
With this gift of time, consciously aim for a 5 to 1 ratio—lots of kind, warm interactions and relatively rare negative comments.
Be good, for goodness sake!
Paul Krismer 2016