Use the Magic 5:1 Ratio to Improve All Your Relationships

Most people don’t need too much convincing that happy relationships are the key to a successful life. After all, when Harvard researchers followed 268 men for more than 70 years, the study’s founding director summed up its finding with a single sentence: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

But if you feel the need for a hard-nosed business case for working on your relationships, it exists. Studies show that warm, loving relationships improve your physical health and  positively influence job satisfaction and income. Good friends are the best stress buster available, according to science. And, as any professional can tell you, relationships make the business world go round. 

Which means keeping your relationships strong is as important as it can sometimes be tricky. But as a fascinating article recently reminded me, as complicated as relationships are, keeping them going strong often boils down to remembering a single ratio. 

The magic ratio for happy relationships 

The piece comes from newsletter The Profile, and was written by newlywed Polina Marinova. Just seven days married, Marinova asked The Profile readers for their best marriage tips. Excellent advice poured in. If you’re looking to tune up your partnership, the whole long article is worth a read, but in the middle of it, comes this one essential but dead simple tip: “Make sure your relationship follows the 5-to-1 ratio.”

This tip may have come from a Profile reader, but this isn’t some random ratio dreamed up by some self-proclaimed “love expert” on the internet. It’s actually backed by decades of research by perhaps the most respected expert in the field of marital stability, John Gottmann. You may have heard of his famous ability to predict which couples will divorce with 90 percent accuracy

How he and his collaborators did this boils down to looking at whether a pair followed the 5-to-1 ratio. As the Gottmann Institute website explains

The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last. That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions. 

These interactions need not be anything big or dramatic. A simple eye roll or raised voice counts as a negative interaction. A quick joke to defuse tension, a squeeze of a partner’s hand, or listening closely when your partner vents about his or her day all constitute a positive interaction. The important thing isn’t the scale of the gesture (sorry, florists). It’s their relative frequency. 

And according to Marinova’s reader, that’s an insight you can easily put into action in your own relationship. “Whenever she gets frustrated or tired, she pushes herself to do something thoughtful or nice for her husband,” Marinova reports.The reader insists: “That 5:1 ratio is a thing.” 

A real thing for business relationships too 

Divorce lawyers agree that an everyday effort to monitor positive interactions compared to negative ones help keep your romantic life from going off the rails. But this is a business site, so it’s important to note that while the 5:1 ratio was invented for couples, it’s a pretty handy standard to keep in mind for all your relationships. 

Friendships are more nourishing when both parties make sure that small kindnesses heavily outweigh slights and missed connections. And employees will almost certainly perform better for a boss who offers five warm and helpful interactions for every one gruff reply or impatient dismissal. 

Humans are complicated and the details of maintaining healthy, positive relationships, as we all know, can get tricky. But all relationships are off to a great start if you begin by setting the 5:1 ratio as a baseline for how you interact with each other. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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