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Have You Heard of the "Magic Ratio" of 5:1?

There is nothing better than having a stable relationship whether that is with your partner, your child, your parent, or that special someone in your life. Often stability is difficult to achieve as conflict in relationships are inevitable, so how does this ‘magic ratio’ make a difference?

Back in the primitive days, our brains needed to be alert for danger in order to keep us safe but as we have moved into modern times, these alerts are not needed as much, however, our brains have not really evolved with the times. That danger alert is our brain focusing on the negative things that happen to us so that we can be better prepared in the future (like in the past when we needed to be aware of the tiger hunting us while we were out searching for food for the family) and this was great to keep us from being eaten alive but what it does today is to keep us more in tune to the negative things that others say or do. As we go about our day and with each negative interaction we have, our brain takes notice, remembers and it is where our focus remains. We end up being so focused on the negative interactions that we do not see the positive ones. So, what do we need to do to start focusing on the positives more? That is where the ‘magic ratio’ of 5:1 comes in.... Couples counselling experts Dr Gottman and Robert Levenson did a study in the 1970’s, where they asked couples to solve conflict in 15 minutes in a research setting where they were observed and recorded.

What they discovered, after reviewing many couples and their conflict style, was the reason behind couples being happy or unhappy in their relationship, and the balance that determined that was the ‘magic ratio’ of 5:1.

For every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five, or more, positive interactions. Even in conflict, these happy couples were found to be teasing one another, having humourous dialogue or being affectionate towards each other.

Unhappy couples, however, have fewer positive interactions to balance their negativity, as little as one positive interaction or less for every negative interaction. While this research is based on couples, it can be applied to all relationships. Just like couples, parents and children also have conflict, just not over the same things. Conflict is not a bad thing but with parents what is found is the use of negative statements to communicate what they need to say. The more negative statements, the more they are overpowering the positive. Let's look at some ways to increase the ratio of positive to negative and get to the 'magic' 5:1:

  1. Show interest in what they have to say. Listen to understand, not to reply. Be curious and ask open ended questions to find out more so that you can see their point of view too and not just keep pushing your agenda.

  2. Admit when you are wrong. Taking responsibility for your actions shows you can admit you make mistakes too and apologising when this happens is not only taking ownership but also helps to de-escalate the conflict.

  3. Show affection. When conflict happens, this is because you have a difference of opinion and holding hands or a touch on a shoulder while discussing your differences can go a long way in showing that you are in this together and on the same side.

  4. Find ways to agree. In conflict it is quite easy to focus on the negative and drill deep into that. In doing this, often the positives and the parts of the discussion you can agree to can be missed. The smallest ways in which you can agree can show that you are listening, and you care.

Focusing on finding the positives in daily interactions helps to retrain the brain to move away from the negative and in turn improves relationships and mental health.

What 5 positives can you think of about your partner, child, parent, special person to let them know about today?


Debra Bragança is based in the Redlands, Brisbane and provides in person and online counselling. She has specialised training in relationship and marriage counselling and works with her clients around issues that impact these relationships, including individual concerns such as anxiety, depression, illness and traumatic life events. Debra is an integrative family and marriage counsellor, who has lived experience, both past and present, in many of the individual concerns she works with as well as a stable and happy marriage of more than 20 years. Debra is qualified in Counselling, Gottman Couples Therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance & Committment Therapy among many other ongoing annual professional development courses. Her lived experience, work experience, qualifications and training ensures she is well equipped to support her clients. Debra provides a warm, empathic and private setting where clients will feel validated, respected and heard without fear of judgement. Here they will develop self-awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours as they move forward towards a more fulfilling life.

Debra is registered with the Australian Counselling Association.


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