Ever get caught in the trap of wondering if you’re doing your relationships well enough? Get sucked in by the way romance is portrayed in movies, or by the myth of the perfect mother? Or perhaps you know your relationships need improving but are unsure what to do about it. The 5:1 rule is an easy guideline that allows you to either let go of perfectionism or improve your relationship. Yep, it does both!
The background on the 5:1 rule is this. Dr Gottman, a self-proclaimed relationship expert has stated that he is able to predict the likelihood of a couple staying together by observing their interactions. He didn’t look at how badly they fought, how often they had sex or if they had common interests or not. His predictive tool was that for each negative interaction, there needed to be at least five positive interactions to balance it out. If this ratio was met, then the couple’s relationship would survive. Even if there were a fair few fights, as long as this was balanced out by the number of positive interactions (that’s compliments and connection, not just an absence of negativity), the relationship would be okay.
Similarly, a study into the emotional resilience of children found that those who grew into the most secure adults were those whose interactions with their parents followed a ratio of at least 5:1 too. So for each negative interaction with the child, there needed to be at least five statements of positive connection. This was focused on the adult’s behaviour, not the children’s. So if your child is having a tantrum, and you can resist reacting to it negatively, then that’s a neutral interaction. The children with the worst outcomes had homes where the ratio of negative to positive was 1:2 – twice as many negative comments as positive ones. This tends to be in environments where children are expected to be good (and so this behaviour is essentially ignored) and it is only when they do something naughty that the parents give them attention.
It might seem obvious when we think about how to treat children, but often we neglect to compliment the adults in our lives the same way. But this rule could apply to the workplace too – five comments like ‘great presentation’ or ‘Bright and early as usual, good to see’ would go a long way to improving workplace relations, where bosses often fall into the trap of only commenting when work falls below standard.
If you’d like to put this idea into practice in your own relationships, start to pay attention to what you say and whether you’d class that comment as positive, negative or neutral. You’ll soon see that most of our interactions are neutral (e.g. pass the butter, did you see that coffee shop on the corner is changing hands) and it’s easy enough keep a rough tally of your comments to see if you are meeting the ratio or not (no keeping a tally on your partner’s comments and then using it against them!). You might find that certain relationships easily exceed the ratio (e.g. friendships) and that our most intimate relationships are often the ones which could stand a bit of improvement.
If you find that your ratio isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, there are plenty of opportunities to improve your positive communication. Take some of the neutral interactions and turn them into positives. With your partner, instead of saying ‘yes’ when asked if you’d like a cup of tea, try ‘thanks, I’d really appreciate that’. Instead of saying ‘uh-huh’ when your partner tells you about work, really listen to what they’re saying and see if you can pick up on a positive quality they’re demonstrating during the story to comment on. Compliment them on their appearance. Or just say ‘thanks’ when they do the dishes, even if it’s their job. With children, it’s about ‘catching’ them being good, e.g. playing on their own or listening can be identified and complimented.
However, if you’re someone lusting after the perfect relationship or trying to be the perfect parent, use this information to help you lighten up. You don’t need to be perfect! Your relationships are doing well even if you have the occasional outburst or fight. You don’t need to have a track record of 100% for people to love you and for your relationships to be healthy – you just need to be 5:1.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.