Is it just me or does it feel like your house is shrinking too? As Covid-19 restrictions continue, I am hearing more and more that husbands and wives, parents, kids, and siblings are feeling stressed and compressed into spaces never meant to accommodate work, school, play, and family life all at once. For many, all this togetherness has been a wonderful reset and time discovering how much fun they can have together. But as the months go by, it seems the opportunities for stepping on each other’s toes, literally and metaphorically, just seem to increase.
Renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, has found that despite physical closeness and time together, relationships can become unstable and emotionally disconnected if our interactions become marked by frequent correction, complaints, criticism, and even negative gestures such as smirking or eye-rolling. When these kinds of “negative” interactions become the norm in relationships, connection and stability decrease. In his research on conflict between married couples, Gottman discovered a shockingly consistent ratio in emotionally healthy and connected couples. Even during a disagreement or conflict, the most stable couples maintained an average ratio of positive-to-negative interactions of 5-to-1! That is five smiles, hugs, encouragements, words of affection or affirmation, apologies, or empathetic nods to every one complaint, interruption, or sigh of exasperation.
This research has been widely applied across a variety of relationships and settings including parenting and education in which a “Magic Ratio” of positive to negative interactions is recommended to increase connection, engagement, and stability in families – as well as classrooms. Whether a 5-to-1 ratio is truly the “magic” number for strong and connected relationships is subject to some debate but it is clear the need for positive interactions greatly outnumbers negative ones.
So what is the “ratio” in your house these days? It could be easy to slip into patterns of criticism, defensiveness, and general annoyance with one another as the losses and uncertainty of this season affect each family member and time together seems never ending! If the ratio in your house seems far from the ideal, it is time to work as parents to increase and model positive interactions. Here are a few ideas to up your ratios:
- Say, “Good morning!”
- Smile and look each other in the eye
- Listen in an effort to understand
- Ask for forgiveness
- Express gratitude for one another
- Take an interest in each other’s lives and concerns
- Offer praise easily and critiques sparingly
- Do a favor
- Notice the small victories in a tough season
- Prioritize one-on-one time with each other and each child
These are just a few of the kinds of positive “deposits” you can begin to make into the relational bank account of your family. Every interaction within your family has the potential to be a connecting and stabilizing deposit or a disconnecting and destabilizing withdrawal.
Will you begin to invest in your marriage and family with this metaphor in mind? Stored up good-will, affection, encouragement, and fun can go a long way in providing the emotional reserves your family most needs in times like this when discouragement and stress affects us all. We’ve all stocked up on toilet paper and hand-sanitizer at this point – so maybe it’s time to stock up on positive interactions as well!
Gottman, J. M. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail and how you can make yours last. New York, NY: Fireside.