How Ratios Can Help Your Relationship

A ratio is defined as a proportion: the relation between things with respect to their comparative quantity, magnitude, or degree. According to multiple studies the ratio that you need in order to have a great relationship is 5:1. This means you need to have 5 positive interactions with your partner for every 1 negative interaction that you experience together. Those of you who are in a strong relationship will read this and think, “That’s it? No problem.” If you have any other reaction your relationship may be ready for some help.

I specialized in working with couples and families when I was in graduate school studying psychology. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of couples. I often notice that the couples I work with don’t seem to have the ability to communicate authentically and clearly with each other. The reasons for this poor communication often remain hidden until I meet with each partner individually. Once partner A is not in the same room, partner B often unleashes a laundry list of complaints and resentments about partner A. And more often than not I notice how articulate they are in communicating their issues to me even though they had been quite inarticulate in the sessions when their partner was present. I often see the same thing when I’m working with an individual. If I ask them whether they have shared their complaint with their partner, they will say “NO!” with complete exasperation (like I must be joking)! When this happens in sessions with couples or individuals, I always know that we are dealing with unresolved resentments. Resentments build up when a disagreement or misunderstanding gets swept aside rather than being used as an opportunity for growth.

For example, a few years ago I worked with a heterosexual couple who had major resentments about dividing household tasks. They were so angry by the time they came to see me that they said their ratio was 1:10, meaning one positive interaction for every ten negative interactions. They were constantly nit-picking at one another and their relationship was in jeopardy. As I worked with this couple individually and together, a picture started to unfold. When they were dating the wife told her husband that he was terrible at housecleaning. She told him that she liked cleaning and she would handle it. Ten years and three kids later she was constantly infuriated by his lack of initiative around the house. She remembered what she had told him long ago but she said he should know that those same rules shouldn’t apply to their current life. Every time she left the vacuum cleaner just outside his office door it was a silent plea for help, and every time it was ignored she took it as proof that he didn’t care. Every time she yelled at him about not cleaning up he would think to himself that his wife was turning into a stressed-out nag and that he liked her more before they got married. They were at an impasse. Their resentments made it so that he saw her as a stress case and she saw him as uncaring and lazy. These stories had solidified over the years so that they treated one another as if the story was true. It’s hard to have a 5:1 ratio when you have stressed out and uncaring partners…

My goal in therapy is to help couples unravel complex, negative situations and make resentments disappear. Once we start to tackle some of the old issues and resentments, I often see the couple’s defenses melt in front of my eyes. A couple will go from looking angry and distant to entering my office holding hands and laughing. Once the defenses soften it becomes easier to find solutions that seemed impossible to find before. With solutions come gratitude, affection, and warmth…all things that tip the ratio back to the desired 5:1 (or better).

If you or your relationship are in need of a tune-up, please contact me to discuss working together.

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