We put our marriage to the test. We failed.
After learning about John Gottman’s research demonstrating that successful couples make five deposits into each other’s emotional bank accounts for every one withdrawal, my husband and I tried a little experiment to see if we had the right ratio. A deposit is any act of affection or kindness. Simply showing interest in what the other person is saying counts as a deposit. A withdrawal is something negative like disinterest or contempt.
I found two jars: a big one to count deposits and a small one to count withdrawals. The big deposits jar was exactly four times as big as the little withdrawals jar. I know, the ratio is supposed to be five-to-one, but I couldn’t find a jar exactly five times as big as another jar, and I figured that since it is human nature to notice and remember slights more vigilantly than basic human decency, reporting error would compensate.
For every positive interaction, we put a candy in the big jar. For every negative interaction, we put a candy in the little jar. Filling the big jar first would signal success: it would prove that we had at least four positive interactions (that we remembered and recorded) for every one negative interaction.
We blew it. The little jar filled up first. We counted the candy in both jars and found that each held almost exactly the same number of candies: a one-to-one ratio of positive and negative interactions. That is not a recipe for marital bliss.
Moreover, a closer reading of Gottman’s books proves that my “reporting error” logic is a really lousy excuse; successful couples not only have a higher ratio of positive interactions, they do a better job of noticing the nice things their partners do.
Since we failed the candy jar test, we have tried to improve at having and noticing positive interactions. Some things we have tried include writing short, daily notes of appreciation in a Couple app, having a time set aside to chat as a couple, and making sure that we first ask each other, “How was your day?” when we see each other after work, before we trudge ahead into a family logistics discussion. We have also been working to reduce the number of negative interactions by working on communication skills to prevent and de-escalate arguments. We hold a weekly meeting to discuss family logistics, budgeting and other stressful topics, so we don’t have to negotiate such things on an on-going basis all week long.
Do you have any other ideas to increase the ratio of positive interactions with those you love? What works for you?