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 where 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 where 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.