“There you go again!” exclaimed Tatyana, exasperated.
“You always leave the dining table a mess. You expect everyone to clean up after you—by everyone, I mean me in particular. Why should I clean up your damn messes? If it’s not the dining table, it’s the living room. If it’s not the living room, it’s the bedroom. You think you are the only one who lives in this house? You’re driving me crazy with your messes!”
“I’ll clean it up. But let me point out that I’m bringing in three times as much money as you are, and so maybe it’s just fair that you should do three times as much cleaning up as I do. I can’t do everything. I’m swamped at work. You know that. When I get home, I’m dead tired. You know that too. I remind you every night, not that you listen.”
“Right. Since you make more money, I’m hired help. Yes, you will clean up. Just as you did, what, the last five hundred fifty times? I’m just sick of having to pick up after you. And after the children too! Everyone thinks I’m a servant in this household—here to pick up after them! I have a job too, you know. Try thinking about someone other than yourself for once, Tom!”
Interactions come in two flavors: positive or negative
Many couples have had frustrating, exasperating conversations over the course of their relationship. But Tatyana and Tom are headed down a perilous path from which they will have trouble returning, or even finding a better direction.
The problem is not exactly about Tom’s being a mess—if indeed he is the mess that Tatyana thinks he is.
The problem is that this interaction, like so many others for this couple, is dominated exclusively by negative talk. And one can infer from the conversation that positive talk in this relationship is, at best, extremely limited.
Positive and negative interactions are NOT equal: The Magic Ratio
John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, and his associates have found that, for a relationship to be happy, there have to be at least five positive interactions for every negative one.
When relationships start, what Gottman calls the magic ratio typically well exceeds 5 : 1. That's the good news!
But the bad news is that as time goes on, the negative habits that may have seemed cute in the beginning lose their cuteness; the negative patterns of behavior that one tolerated become less tolerable; the little acts of inconsideration one ignored begin to grate.
Tatyana and Tom have become focused on the negatives in their relationship.
Every relationship has these negatives. But if those are what you focus on, your relationship is on a downward trajectory from which there may be no easy return.
If you want to have a relationship that survives the negatives and that thrives despite those negatives, you must find at least five positives for every negative, and then you have to communicate each of those five or more for every negative you communicate.
If your ratio goes beyond 5 : 1, all the better, but you need at least to find 5 positive things to say to your partner for every negative thing you say.
If you have trouble coming up with positive things, take our quiz to get some help.
It has to be a conscious strategy on your part. If you want your relationship to work, focus on the positives.
And just by doing that, you will be on the road to a better relationship!