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The Power of the Magic 5 to 1 Ratio: A Positive Parenting Approach

Dr. John and Julie Gottman are world-renowned American psychological researchers and clinicians who have done extensive work on divorce prediction and marital stability for over 40 years. 

In their research, they found that stable and healthy relationships have a “magic” ratio of 5 to 1. This means that they found that in healthy relationships there were five positive feelings/interactions for every negative interaction/feeling during conflict.  So basically, the positive heavily outweighed the negative.

Dr. Gottman suggested that “when the masters of marriage are talking about something important, they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affections because they have made emotional connections.”

The key words there are: emotional connection.  An emotional connection is having a bond, tie and connection to another person through your emotions.  Having an emotional connection with your partner is so valuable and important to maintaining a healthy relationship.

So, what happens when there are more negative interactions than positive interactions?

Researchers have found that unhappy and unhealthy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions and their ratios might look like 1 to 1 (there is only one positive interaction to a negative interaction) or, worse, 1 to 5 (there is only one positive interaction to five negative reactions). In any type of relationship, when people aren’t supportive, criticize each other constantly, provide constant negative feedback, don’t demonstrate affection or appreciation, or act uninterested in their partner the relationship falls out of balance. The magic ratio applies to relationships with coworkers, friends, family members, and ESPECIALLY your own children!

How can I use this as a parent?

As mentioned above, the magic ratio can be used as a positive parenting approach that can be much more effective than punishment.  Also, this approach can be used with all children and if done correctly, reduces the need for punishment.  This parenting approach is effective and can help you influence your child’s behavior. 

*Note that I said influence rather than control.

Influence and control, what’s the difference?

At the end of the day it’s impossible to have complete control over your children, especially as they transition to the dreaded teenage years.  When we try to control others, it is often met with resistance due to our psychological need as human beings for independence.  Independence is all about power and control and when we try to control others it triggers them to assert their independence (just think of your teens). That’s why punishment is met with so much resistance and opposition.

So how do you gain influence with your children?

Building a strong relationship with your children will enable you to gain more influence over them toward a more positive direction.  The first step to build a strong relationship is to establish a more positive connection.  This is where the magic ratio can come in handy!  Remembering to have more positive interactions (a hug, a compliment, a praise, an enjoyable shared activity, a set time together) than negative interactions (criticism, negative feedback, punishing techniques) will help set a foundation for a healthy and strong relationship with your children. Being positive 24/7 is definitely not ideal and impossible, but if we remember to generally have more positive interactions than negative ones then you can maintain a healthy relationship with your child.

For example, Marissa and her 15-year-old daughter Kaitlin are constantly arguing about Kaitlin’s grades.  Kaitlin has not been consistent with her homework and Marissa is so frustrated with her.  This frustration leads Marissa to constantly criticize Kaitlin’s every move (a negative interaction) and rarely ever praises her for when she does do her homework (a positive interaction).  The ratio has turned into 0 (praise) to 1(criticism) and has led to an imbalance in their relationship.

In what scenario would Kaitlin feel more motivated to try to do her homework consistently and argue less with her mom ?

If we take the same example and reversed the ratio to 5 to 1 it would look like this:  Every time Kaitlin is being inconsistent with homework, Marissa can express her frustration (1 negative interaction) and also validate how hard homework must be for her, praise her for her effort, praise her for other areas she’s doing well in, offer help and her time, and offer encouragement (5 positive interactions).

Just like our social relationships, a strong relationship bond is the foundation of a parent’s influence!

This positive parenting approach and the magic ratio may seem so foreign and many may be very skeptical; however, if we really think about our own lives we can see this approach organically occurring in our healthy relationships.  Think of past mentors, teachers, coaches, and bosses that you have had over the years.  Have you ever worked hard for them and wanted to meet or exceed their expectation just because you felt connected to them? Think of your own friends, significant others, and family members.  Have you ever done a favor for them just because you wanted to?  It’s due to our positive connections with these people that has influenced our own behavior.

About The Author

Krista Parker
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