Positive & Negative Words

Why the 5-to-1 ratio works

Why do so many of us remember—in detail—all the negative things our spouse did or said, from the beginning of the relationship until today? "You're always late." "This place is a mess." "You never listen to me."

Why can't a big bouquet of roses or a coveted ticket to a favorite sporting event make up for several things that caused hurt feelings? Why do we remember critical remarks more than positive ones? You can blame it on the brain.

Studies conducted by Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago have shown what he calls "the negativity bias" of the brain. Our brains are actually more sensitive and responsive to unpleasant news. That's why personal insults or criticism hit us harder and stay with us longer. It's why negative ads are more effective than positive ones—political or otherwise.

It's a numbers game

Not only do we have a built-in partiality toward negative information, but negatives increase disproportionately over positives. It's not a one-to-one ratio. In other words, one positive cannot offset one negative. When you tell your husband, "Thanks for giving the kids a bath, honey," and five minutes later say, "You forgot to take out the trash—again," the negative drowns out the positive.

Our brain needs a higher number of positive entries to counterbalance this built-in negativity bias. And several small, frequent, positive acts pack more punch than one giant-size positive. The size of the positive doesn't count; quantity does. It's strictly a numbers game.

That's why throwing his wife an expensive surprise birthday party at a fine restaurant can't make up for a husband's daily negative behavior and remarks. And a wife's present to her husband of that new riding mower he had his eye on won't compensate for her continual nagging and critical comments. One super-size positive cannot offset multiple negatives. 


The right formula

How many positives are needed to offset one negative? At least two-to-one, experts say. Research-ers have concluded that when applying this formula to our most intimate relationships, the ratio of positives must be even higher. Among those researchers is psychologist Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington. Gottman says the formula should be five-to-one for married couples. So how do you accomplish that?

Make a list. Write down at least 15 of your mate's positive qualities. (Add more weekly for four weeks.) How does your spouse make your life nicer? Does he or she: balance the checkbook? cut the grass? work diligently at their profession? grocery shop? spend time with the children? make you laugh?


Practice "the daily double." Say at least two positive things about your mate—to your mate—every day for the next seven days. Refrain from pointing out any negatives for at least one week. No negatives. Zip. Zero. (Yes, you can do this. The rewards will be worth it.) 

Avoid interrupting your spouse. This may be more challenging for powerful personalities, and women may find this especially difficult because the female brain processes facts and emotions at the same time. More thoughts bounce around a woman's head that she wants to blurt out. If you fail, don't beat yourself up—just start over. Most people interrupt others in less than 20 seconds.


Compliment your spouse in front of others—including the children. Don't pour it on thick; keep it true and sincere. It's better, but not necessary, if your mate hears your praise. You're developing a habit.

Look for humor in any situation. Be quick to smile or laugh. A daily dose of humor, learning to laugh at ourselves, and laughing together lightens any load.

6. Express thanks and appreciation to your spouse, and to God, for his or her qualities and actions. Again, don't overdo it. Choose the right moment, speak softly, and look deeply into your mate's eyes.

Peggy Bert, a speaker and writer, has been married 43 years. www.PeggyBert.com


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Communication; Marriage; Wounds, Emotional
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2008
Posted September 12, 2008

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