4.01.2013

The Magic Ratio

In marriage and in parenting, we have 100s of interactions each day. During our interactions, how often is criticism okay before it is destructive? Looking at it another way, how positive should we be with our spouse and children in order to maintain a good relationship?

Dr. John Gottman is one of the leading scholars in marriage relationships. He has spent 35 years studying couples, in order to learn which behaviors lead to divorce, and which ones lead to a long, healthy marriage. He rigorously observed over 3000 couples, and then followed them over time to see how things ended up.

One of his most powerful findings is that couples who end up divorcing have a ratio of 0.8:1 positive to negative interactions. That's right. They have more negative than positive interactions. No wonder they wanted out! On the other hand, the long happy marriages had a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions. This is what I like to think of as "the magic ratio" in a relationship.

When it feels like my relationship with someone in my family is strained, I can usually tie it back to too much verbal or non-verbal (thoughts and facial expressions) negativity from me. If I find myself being too critical or negative toward someone in my family, I think of this ratio. There have been times that I've tried counting each of my interactions with a certain family member just to see what my ratio is. I admit, it's a bit too meticulous for my style, and I always lose count (it would be nice if some researchers could observe for a day and let me know our ratio). But at least when I'm more conscientious, I decide to hold back certain criticism and corrections, and give out more compliments. And when a negative comment comes out, I try to wait a long time before another escapes my mouth. I'm finally starting to learn that I don't have to correct every wrong behavior. I can look past some things and wait for a better teaching moment.

Awhile back, my husband and I recognized once again the need to be more positive. We resolved to keep our voices calm and the volume low. We committed to try really hard to look past what little things we could. And when correction is needed, we agreed to use a whisper or to talk one-on-one with the child in another room. Our goal was to try to make the climate in our home more positive. Instead of getting mad at our kids for fighting, and just adding to the level of contention, we decided to try to eliminate the negative as much as we could. And after just one day, we could see such a difference! The first day of trying this was one of those really good days. Not because the kids were easy (in fact, we had some very tired girls that day). But we stayed calm, and gave a lot of compliments and positive words of encouragement. We tried to find humor more often and we laughed a lot more. There was still some contention, but the way it was handled was much better than normal. Solutions were found and the climate in the home remained positive. I wish every day could be that good (but they just can't)!

This is something I have to continually remind myself of. As a mom, I find myself pointing out the wrong behavior way too much. And I know it brings my children down! On the flip side, when I'm more positive, they have so much more confidence and happiness. And I know they play off of my attitude (positive and negative) in the way they interact with each other. My mom always said that the mom is the "thermometer" in the home. And I agree. If mom is "hot" or "cold" so to speak, it affects the entire family climate. If mom is happy, so are dad and the kids. If mom isn't happy, then neither are they. No wonder a common word of advice to new husbands is to just make their wife happy, and then they will be happy. It's so true!  In this way, a positive parent really does set the tone for the entire home.

Sometimes I am discouraged by that thought, because my imperfections bring my family down. There are certain days that it's just harder for me to be positive. And sometimes there are children that are harder to find something positive to say to. But I'm learning that no one is perfect, and that's just part of life. We get to learn to deal with each other's flaws in family life. And we'll turn out okay in the end, because of Christ.

So please don't read this post and get down on yourself! The 5:1 ratio is important in the relationship with ourselves too. If you are feeling down on yourself, look at the good you are doing. Count your strengths, not your weaknesses. And don't worry that you don't have the same strengths as other parents. Your children are blessed because of who you are, and what you alone can give them.  

But if you are up for the challenge of making some improvements in your relationships, read on. If you want change in your family, it has to start with YOU!

Think about your own family dynamics. How are you doing with your relationship ratios? Is there anyone in your family who you are too critical with? What would you find if you tallied your positive and negative interactions? If it sounds too hard to count for an entire day, try just counting them in a given hour, or a given interaction (ex. the morning routine). Then conduct a little experiment: make a concerted effort for a few days to increase the positive and decrease the negative. Observe how you feel. Watch how the other person's behavior changes. How does your relationship change? What did you learn?

Don't worry when you're not perfect at it. Just do your best to make improvements. I have found that this is one of those "small and simple things" that really does end up having a "great" impact!

3 comments:

  1. Great reminder. Thank you.

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  2. This is just what I needed to hear today :-) thank you so much :-)

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  3. What a great post, Jen! I am definitely going to figure out how I'm doing with my relationships ratios. I love this way of thinking of things.

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