Appreciation of others’ good qualities improves our lives and makes us happier. But it’s great for them, too, and it can also save our intimate relationships.
I remember one time my wife saying, just after I’d made a critical comment, that I criticized her a lot, which surprised me, because I didn’t think I did. I asked her as gently as I could when the last time was that I’d said something critical, and she couldn’t remember. I asked if it was within the last two weeks. No, it was longer ago than that. The last month? She was pretty sure it was longer ago than that.
So this is indicative of the way that the mind latches on to critical comments — a topic I’ve mentioned before. Criticisms sting, and they stick in the mind. They’re hard to forget.
And on the flip-side of this, it’s a reminder that we need to be very careful about the quality of our communication if we don’t want to create a sense that we’re nagging.
When critical or negative communications outweigh appreciative or positive ones, a relationship can become severely strained and distorted. It can become hard for people to have any appreciation for their partner, and neutral or positive statements (“Why don’t we eat out tonight?”) are interpreted as being critical (“Are you saying you don’t like my cooking!”).
Merely balancing a negative comment with a positive one doesn’t work. According to John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, the magic ratio is 5 to 1. Yes, in order to have a healthy, mutually appreciative relationship, there has to be around five positive interactions for every negative one! This is the mathematics of marriage.
How accurate is Gottman predicting the success of relationships? In one study 700 newly-married couples were videotaped while being interviewed for 15 minutes. Simply by counting the ratio of positive to negative interactions that took place during that quarter of an hour, Gottman and his associates were able to predict — with 94% accuracy — which couples would divorce.
Interacting positively goes well beyond verbal communication, however. It includes behaviors such as touching affectionately, smiling, laughing, making friendly eye contact, showing non-verbally that you’re listening to a conversation, etc. And negative interactions can similarly be non-verbal. Some of the most damaging are indications of contempt, such as eye-rolling. The presence of contempt in a relationship, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is the single best predictor of divorce.
Couples can have many different styles of communication: some are volatile and prone to explosive outbursts, while at the other extreme some are conflict-avoiding, where the partners retreat into separate rooms until their emotions simmer down. Neither of these, Gottman has found, are necessarily problems for the long-term stability of a relationship, as long as the 5:1 ratio is maintained. As long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as negative ones, the relationship is likely to be stable in the long term.
Critical communications are not necessarily bad! They can help keep a relationship healthy, and help us to grow. The Buddha once said that not criticizing someone who really needed to be criticized was akin to destroying them. But it’s clear that there has to be a healthy basis of appreciation and affection in a relationship for it to succeed.
There are many ways of showing appreciation and affection, including showing interest by making eye contact and by engaging in conversations (rather than grunting as you read your email), holding hands, saying “I love you,” hugging, etc., doing little things for your partner.
But one thing I’ve been working on for a while is that when I find a negative thought about my wife cropping up (and it’s often something as mundane as not liking the way she’s stacked things in the dishwasher, I’ll switch to consciously rejoicing in her good qualities and reminding myself of my underlying affection for her.
So it might go like this. I hear myself thinking “Sheesh. This isn’t the most efficient way to arrange the cups! Doesn’t she realize that if you turn all the handles this way … wait a minute. I’m being critical.”
And then I’ll articulate positive comments, saying to myself that I love her, that she’s a wonderful mother, that she does way more housework than I do, that she’s very patient, that she has a great sense of humor, etc. That’s five positive thoughts right there, to balance up the negative one. I’d suggest you try this approach of cultivating a stream of positive thoughts when you notice a negative one. If you can’t immediately think of five, that’s OK. You can repeat the same ones. You can even say the same thought five times. The important thing is that you flood the mind with appreciative thoughts, and bring the ratio of positive to negative closer to five to one.
I’m not suggesting it’s enough just to think positive thoughts. We need to show affection in our body language, in the things we do, in what we say and in how we say it. But there are more opportunities to think than there are to speak or act, and cultivating appreciative thoughts makes it easier to speak or act in ways that show love and kindness.
Gottman’s ratio, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been applied in the context of friendships, work relationships, or parental relationships, but I’d be surprised if the same principle didn’t apply. So you can try being aware of the positive to negative balance in many kinds of relationships, and see if you can drive the balance toward the positive.
PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.