By Jeremy Jordan
A few years ago, I was introduced to the work of John Gottman. My supervisor referred to him as the “Godfather of couples counseling.” Little did I know that his work would substantially alter how I approach couples therapy. While I was introduced to the Gottman Institute training material, it was his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that I began sharing with my couples. Naturally, I was skeptical at first. “You’re telling me there are these seven principles that will automatically make marriage work? If it’s that easy, why doesn’t everyone already do it?” The reality is while it may be that simple, it doesn’t mean it is that easy. Just because we can grasp a concept doesn’t make implementation of said concept free of challenge. In fact, some of the simplest truths in life are the most challenging to apply. Just ask anyone who knows that they ought to get 8 hours of sleep each night, or not drink too much caffeine, or that they shouldn’t get angry at their crying toddler. Most of us have an idea about what we should do, but then struggle with following through. Participating in healthy relationships is one of those things. According to Gottman, he has identified ways to accurately predict how a marriage will end before anything seems out of place. He has figured out how to quantify a marriage. In other words, by observing thousands of couples, he has been able to ascertain common denominators that speak to healthy or unhealthy relationships. One of these denominators pertains to the ratio between positive and negative interactions that lead to relationships succeeding or failing. Let’s consider it in real life examples. We all have those topics that inevitably lead to heated disagreements in our relationships. Perhaps it is finances, or time management, or maybe it is how we are going to prioritize our next family outing. Do we do what they want to do, or is it our turn to pick? If we find ourselves initiating these conversations at the wrong time, or too frequently, we see these negative interactions increase. In turn, our positive time with our significant other decreases, or at least seems to. Even when experiencing happy interactions, we find ourselves thinking about what bothers us. It’s normal to obsess over the problems, which makes it virtually impossible to point out the good in our relationship. Before we know it, our relationship revolves around different arguments about unsolvable problems. We forget that we ought to be united while trying to overcome these challenges. It is then normal to blame the other person for how the relationship is failing. We become so comfortable with living in conflict that we continue to perpetuate conflict. Will Durant, referring to Aristotle, says, “We are what we repeatedly do.” We have a negative relationship because all we do is pour negativity into the relationship. This leads to little hope and even less contentment in our relationship. So how do we break this, and how much negativity can we withstand? The magic ratio identified by Gottman would be 5 to 1. For a relationship to be successful in the long run, we should have at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. This means that every time I think about reminding my wife about something that could lead to disagreement, I should consider if I’ve contributed enough positivity in her life. Before I remind her that we’ll be spending X amount of money for her mistake, I should ask myself if I have voiced my appreciation for all the work she does with our children. Or I should first thank her for the many things she does on a daily basis that enable me to go to work each day. After contributing positivity, I can then broach that challenging topic. If you had to guess, what do you think your ratio would be? Do you consider the big picture when addressing topics that lead to disagreement? Or, like most, do you jump into negative conversations whenever they come to your mind? Learning to improve your ratio is only one call away. While it won’t be easy, beginning to pursue growth is that simple.
Jeremy S. Jordan is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works at Front Porch Counseling. He is especially interested in working with couples and families, helping others learn how to navigate the many challenges that occur throughout life. Including his training, Jeremy has been counseling since 2013 and licensed as an LPC since 2016. He currently resides in Cincinnati, OH, with his wife, two children, and two dogs.