The Science of a Happy Marriage, Part 2 - Know the Mathematics of Marriage

“At the University of Washington researchers videotaped married couples in conversation and cataloged every nice or negative thing they did or said during a discussion. Things like laughing, touching, smiling or paying a compliment were coded as positive interactions and not-so-nice moments—eye rolling, sneers, criticism, defensiveness and so on—were recorded as negative.

As the researchers reviewed the data, a striking pattern emerged: In stable marriages there are at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones. When the ratio starts to drop, the marriage is at high risk for divorce.

In real life no couple can keep a running tally of positive and negative displays. But in a practical sense the lesson is that a single “I’m sorry” after bad behavior isn’t enough. For every snide comment or negative outburst in a marriage you need to ramp up the positives so the good-to-bad ratio doesn’t fall to a risky level.

The lesson: Don’t wait until you are bickering to turn on the charm. Nice gestures and comments are easy to make—and go a long way.”

Taken from the June 2010 issue of Ladies Home Journal magazine. From For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, by Tara Parker-Pope. Copyright 2010 by Tara Parker-Pope.


This study was no-doubt done at John Gottman’s “Love Lab.” (You can laugh, but you can’t argue with the significance of his research.)

Proverbs 15:1 says that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” There are certainly times when you might need to speak what feels like “harsh words” to your spouse. Even a desperate cry for love or attention might feel like an attack when spoken the wrong way.

But this research reminds us of the truth we all know: we need to hear kind, encouraging, life-giving words from our spouse.

So how are you doing in this area? When was the last time you took the time to tell your spouse how much you value you him or her? Or the good things you see in them? The goal is a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative. Some of us are way out of balance and need to start working on the positive.