Remember the first real fight you and your partner ever had? It probably started out about something silly (like whether or not pineapple is an appropriate pizza topping) and quickly escalated to reality show proportions (“Well, then you order dinner next time!”) before ending with both of you furiously apologizing and making up. And now, every time you guys go out for a slice, you can’t help but laugh about it.
Fast-forward a few years later and let’s just say that your fights aren’t quite as… charming as they used to be. Hey, it’s only natural that things change as your relationship grows, but according to research, how you handle disagreements says a lot about whether or not you guys are in it for the long-haul. In fact, how you handle conflict could predict your chances of divorce.
The 5:1 ratio
Back in the 1970s, therapist Dr. John Gottman and his researchers asked couples to talk about a conflict in their relationship for 15 minutes while they watched on. They then studied the tapes and followed up with the couples nine years later. Here’s the crazy part—the team was able to predict which couples would still be together and which would divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
How did they do it? According to their research, the difference between happy and unhappy relationships comes down to the ratio of positive to negative interactions, specifically five to one. In other words, for every negative interaction during a conflict, a happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.
What are negative interactions?
Some negative interactions are obvious (like when you bring up an idea to spice up your sex life and your partner gets critical or defensive), while others less so (think: eye-rolling or being dismissive). Interestingly, while you may think that anger falls into the negative category, it actually doesn’t have to. Per Dr. Gottman, “anger only has negative effects in marriage if it is expressed along with criticism or contempt, or if it is defensive.”
And it’s not that healthy marriages don’t have any of these negative interactions (they do!), but rather that couples quickly repair afterwards and replace these behaviors with validation and empathy—more on that below.
Got it. And what about positive interactions?
According to the relationship expert, there are many ways that couples can maintain positivity and closeness—even when arguing. They can, for example, express affection (like holding your partner’s hand when discussing something difficult), empathize (“I totally get why you would feel that way”) and find opportunities for agreement (“You’re right, we do need to find a way to budget better”). They also act interested, demonstrate their partner matters, apologize, make jokes and accept their partner's perspective.
“When [couples in happy marriages] are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”
So the next time you and your S.O. are bickering over whose turn it is to make dinner, maybe try to lighten the mood by joking—or you know, suggesting pineapple pizza.