A Ratio for Love and Life

Love on the Rocks?  Taken at Point Betsie Lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Michigan, USA

A lot of reading that I have done recently has triggered ordering more books.  Two different books I read recently referred to John Gottman’s research on marriage and relationships, so I bought his book Why Marriages Succeed and Fail.  I certainly don’t want to fall into the latter category, but I was also curious about the research in general and what could be applied to other relationships (work, family, etc).

First of all, he shared that there isn’t a single type of relationship or communication style that works.  His research grouped communication styles into several groups, and he also found a common path that takes marriages into failure.  Basically, a specific negative spiral of escalating behaviours  exist that, unchecked, are highly likely to lead to divorce.  Not so unlike what I see in working teams, where stuck in escalating conflict phases, a team is unlikely to be productive and create positive value unless they can break the trajectory they are on.

Gottman also refers to a very specific “magic ratio” of positive to negative experiences in a relationship that is essential.  No matter what the style of marriage, a certain amount of negativity will occur (conflict, differing opinions, etc) and is important to the relationship.  But it cannot run unchecked without kicking off the negative spiral.  He identifies that with a ratio of 5:1, or “in other words, as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.  It was based on this ratio that we were able to predict whether couples were likely to divorce.  In very unhappy couples, there tended to be more negative than positive interaction.”

I thought a lot about the ratio as I continued to read the book, and also reflected that there is some type of similar ratio in all our relationships, whether at work or at home.  Certainly any relationship that would sustain a 1:1, or 1:2, ratio would drive a situation for the most part that would cause us to exit (quit a job, leave a company, end a friendship, change teams, etc).  

Then I started thinking about one of my favourite metaphors from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:  The Emotional Bank Account.  While I am somewhat disturbed about banks and money being used to model relationships, the concept is very easy to understand and very powerful.


Basically the principle of it is that between any two people, there is an Emotional Bank Account that has some balance.  In some cases, there is a high balance.  This would be a relationship that has over time sustained the 5:1 ratio.  It has had more deposits, of higher value, than it has had withdrawals. 

This is usually a relationship that has high trust and mutual respect.  Possibilities for communication and problem resolution are high.  It is usually fairly easy to maintain the positive cycle of continued deposits, and the withdrawals are usually small and occasional.

On the other hand, we have the overdrawn accounts that are glaringly red.  In these relationships, if we can even call them that, there is very little trust and likely little to no mutual respect.  Withdrawals are easily made; deposits are seldom and miniscule.  Our ratio is 1:1, or 1:2, or maybe even 1:5.  It is hard to accomplish much in this kind of relationship, as the lack of trust basically blocks any cooperation.


Why I like to start to think about this metaphor or metric in our relationships is that first of all, we can acknowledge that we aren’t in a good place.  And furthermore, it certainly isn’t likely to get better on its own, especially when we consider things like binary bias (is someone good or bad, focusing on the extremes and the behaviours that confirm it) and stereotyping (using information that confirms our negative opinion to continue to substantiate and grow the stereotype, while neglecting or negating information that challenges our stereotype).

Once we realise where we are in a relationship, and that is likely to only get worse unless we ACTIVELY do something, then we have a chance to JUST DO IT (to coin Nike’s inspirational phrase).  

Then we can start working to achieve a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences.  We can monitor our own criticism and complaints, and perhaps offer some positive affirmation or appreciation instead (note that research also shows that emphasising a positive is far more likely to achieve results than criticising a negative).

It’s important to realise though that making these changes aren’t an instant effect.  Particularly for the relationships we have, whether romantic or professional, where trust is lost, it takes a sustained and continuous effort to build it back up.  They are also small steps that continue over time, rather than a single grandiose gesture (which is almost certain to backfire and further erode trust).  It is also understanding that what might be a deposit for me, is a withdrawal for you.   These are a lot of the things that I focus on in my class “How and Why We Misunderstand Each Other?”.

So in this month of Saint Valentine and all the focus on relationships, where are you in yours?  If you make an honest assessment of those relationships, personal and professional, that are important to you, are they 5:1, 2:1, 1:1, 1:2, or 1:5?  

If your relationships aren’t where you want them to be, perhaps consider taking a February challenge to actively work on them.  Brainstorm some small things that you can do to improve the ratio and increase your deposits.  It isn’t to go buy dozens of over-priced roses either.  It is identifying and doing things that the other person values and makes them feel valued.

I try to think each day, where am I in my key relationships.  And if I’m not where I want to be, I think of a deposit I can make.  Sometimes I need about ten of them…

If you need help, don’t forget that this month, I have a 50% special on coaching.  

In closing, I’ll share one of the favourite deposits that my husband made for me…. Scraping my car in the winter when our daughter was in dagis and I was always running late for everything.   That small gesture from him was a tremendous deposit in our account.  The greatest one though has been loving me, in spite of or even because of, all that I am.

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