How positive is your relationship?
While “relationships are hard” is an oft-repeated refrain, the catchphrase can make it seem like relationships are expected to be constantly full of nonstop challenges, arguments, frustrations, and roller-coaster emotions. The struggle is often romanticized in movies and gushy social media posts, but the truth is, relationships should not feel hard all the time—or even most of the time.
Relationship researchers have actually identified exactly how much time couples in healthy relationships tend to spend struggling versus how much time is spent in a positive state. The ratio is pretty eye-opening.
The magic ratio of healthy relationships.
In the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists John Gottman, Ph.D., and Robert Levenson, Ph.D., conducted research studying the way couples interacted with each other and how their relationships fared over the course of several years. Based on their findings, Gottman identified what he calls the “magic 5:1 ratio” for relationship success: Couples who go on to have happy, long-lasting relationships have about five positive interactions or feelings for every one negative interaction or feeling during times of conflict.
Positive interactions might include showing affection, laughing together, sharing physical touch, and just times when you generally appreciate and like each other. Negative interactions might include the moments of criticism, contempt, tension, resentment, stress about the relationship’s future, and times when things just don’t feel good in the relationship.
“Of course, no one is going to walk around all day calculating their interaction ratio,” licensed couples’ therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, tells mbg. “However, we can use it as a reflective tool—if I wrote down a list of our interactions today, would I be writing about more positive interactions than negative?”
You can also think of this magic 5:1 ratio as a sort of love bank account, as licensed marriage therapist Linda Carroll, LMFT, once told mbg. Positive interactions fill up the bank account, while negative interactions deplete it. “The love bank account should be kept in the black so that when you need to draw a lot out at once, such as a deep misunderstanding, a nasty fight, or a time of distance and moving apart, it doesn’t go into the red,” she writes.
Gottman’s research found couples who had lower than a 5:1 ratio between negative and positive interactions (such as a 1:1 ratio, for example) were more likely to be divorced years down the line. And importantly, that 5:1 ratio was specific to times of conflict. Outside of conflict, the ratio between positive and negative interactions in successful relationships actually goes up to 20:1, according to Gottman. That’s 20 positive interactions for every one negative interaction.
In other words, in healthy relationships, the vast majority of the time is spent in a state of ease and affection.
What does this mean for your relationship?
The magic 5:1 ratio (and the 20:1 ratio!) can be a helpful way to take a pulse check on your relationship—and a good reminder that nonstop struggle, drama, frustration, or pain shouldn’t be the defining feature of your relationship.
If negativity is overly present in your relationship, that’s a dynamic that needs to be addressed—not tolerated or glorified. “With continued negativity, people distance themselves because they no longer feel valued, appreciated, and loved,” Earnshaw notes. They eventually cannot tolerate any more, and the relationship ends—or, perhaps worse, they remain in relationships that bring more stress than pleasure and eat away at their overall well-being over time.
There will always be hard times, but it’s important for couples to be working to improve their dynamic, minimize the behaviors that hurt each other, and maximize all the stuff that makes relationships so great to be in. Because relationships should, more often than not, feel good.
Every relationship will definitely have its ups and downs. Navigating life with another human being will always come with challenges to work through because no two humans are perfectly alike, and it’s inevitable that any two people interacting with each other on a daily basis will occasionally hurt and irritate each other.
That said, a healthy relationship is made up of overwhelmingly more positive moments than negative ones. Relationships can be hard at times, but your relationship in general shouldn’t feel hard. It’s a nuanced distinction, but an important one.