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  • Dan Connors

The Magic Ratio- how to improve your relationships scientifically

People can be so annoying. It's a wonder some times how we tolerate each other. It's difficult sharing space, time, and things with other people because by definition they won't see things the same way you do. Their very presence proves that you are not the center of the universe.

That's why relationships and getting along with different kinds of people is an art form and why it's so crucial to civilization. But how do we know the best information to share with others? Sometimes we need to tell them things that are uncomfortable or negative. and that just makes them mad or sad. There's now some science to show that there's an optimal way to share both positive and negative information with those we are in relationship, especially those we live with and are committed to.

Dr. John Gottman has been working on the challenge of relationships for over forty years, and he is one of the recognized experts on marriage, parenting, and relationships. He founded the Gottman Institute ( where his studies of marriage and relationships have been recognized by therapists around the world. Starting in the 1970's, Gottman started observing couples during conflicts and seeing how they got through it. By observing both positive and negative interactions, he was able to predict which couples would still be together years later and which ones had divorced.

The couples where the negative messages were more common than positive ones ended up divorcing, while those who appreciated, listened, and empathized with their partners in a positive mode figured out how to stay together and be more happy. He later came up with what he calls the "Magic Ratio" of five positive interactions for every one negative interaction.

Negativity is poison to relationships, but sometimes it's necessary to get thorny issues resolved. But once criticism and complaining come out, defenses come up and retaliation is often used to try to bring back parity. Negativity can breed more negativity, eventually spiraling out of control because of the intense emotions- fear, anger, shame, sadness, that it can bring up. An intensely negative experience can transform both people in a relationship and be very hard to recover from.

What do you do if your spouse fails to communicate important facts? If your teenager stays out after curfew? If your employee messes up an important presentation? There aren't many choices and most of them are bad. If you ignore the violation, things will only get worse. If you confront the offender, they could feel bad and either fight back or withdraw, neither of which is good for the relationship. Somehow you have to transform a failure into an opportunity.

This is where the magic ratio comes into play. We tend to take relationships for granted until there are problems. Before you get to the point where problems arise, you need to accept that they inevitably will. If this is a relationship that matters and one you need to keep and improve, you need to put plant many positive seeds to cushion any future negative fires.

The sad fact is that many of us don't like giving or receiving positive feedback. If someone has a negative self-image, all the praise in the world gets blocked because they can't take it in. If they have a positive self-image, they will likely appreciate any praise, but it can be easily forgotten because our reptilian brains put way more emphasis on danger, negativity, and loss. Managers, parents, and spouses often don't like giving positive feedback because they are wrapped up in their own little world and don't see any immediate rewards for the effort given. To give meaningful positive feedback, you have to actually pay attention to the other person and notice good things that they do- and few of us have the time or energy to do that regularly.

The more intense a negative experience, the more it is remembered. PTSD can bring physical symptoms for decades. In order to counteract negativity we need to minimize it as much as possible while still getting corrective messages out. That means empathy. We have to be able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes and see it from their side. Anticipate their questions and have good answers for them

Dr. Gottman recommends many tools for improving and repairing relationships when negative things come up. Some of the things he recommends to counteract the one bad feeling are listening, looking for areas of agreement, appreciating, apologizing, demonstrating that they matter, joking appropriately to lighten the mood, and expressing affection (more applicable to spouses and families).

Relationships are hard. Many of us try to take the easy paths and suffer the consequences of weak, superficial, or broken relationships with family, friends and co-workers. The repair checklist below gives you some idea of the work that needs to be done when things get rocky between people.

Repair checkllist from

Think how great the world would be if everybody observed the magic ratio. Just remember the rules of karma- you get back what you put out. At least make sure your negative output doesn't outweigh your positive one. We all owe each other at least that much.

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