At the Family Peace Foundation, we believe the key to healthy family functioning is to ensure adults in the family invest in each other. We do that by being a ‘Needs Detective’. This means we look beyond the immediate behavior we’re seeing, to the feelings beneath. These feelings need to be recognized and acknowledged.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as it should. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, around 40% of marriages in Australia end in divorce.  Almost half of these involve children, suggesting that being a Needs Detective for some of us seems unattainable.

My father, who remained happily married to my Mum for 40 years, used to say to me that the secret of their successful marriage was that he made it a point of ‘never going to bed angry’. Having scanned the peer reviewed literature – I’ve been unable to find any study that backs up Dad’s theory, but it worked for them and my brother, sister and I were the happy beneficiaries. At the Family Peace Foundation though, it’s a key aim of ours to share the scientific research that shows what does make a great relationship.

Sadly Dad died before I got the chance to introduce him to the work of Professor John Gottman. Arguably the western world’s most renowned relationship expert, he has been researching relationships for 40 years and is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington. With his wife, Julie Schwartz, John heads a non-profit research institute (The Relationship Research Institute) and a for-profit therapist training entity (The Gottman Institute).

John Gottman was recognized in 2007 as one of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century. When I was training to be a psychologist, I remember being taught about Gottman’s research. What stuck in my mind was his finding that it wasn’t only how couples fought that mattered, but how they made up. John found that relationships became more secure over time if couples learned to reconcile effectively after a stouch. Interesting though that might be, that’s not the big news.

In a recent Gottman Institute blog, John explained that he now believes the secret to a great relationship is what he calls the 5 to 1 ratio.

According to Dr Gottman, if you want your relationship to blossom, have five positive interactions with your partner for every one negative interaction. He refers to this as relationship ‘balance theory’.

He argues that as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable. So what exactly is a positive interaction? Well, the good news is that it doesn’t take a massive effort. It can be as little as smiling and laughing together, asking questions or saying I love you, whilst negative interactions are deemed as things like arguing or criticism.

So if you do stuff up and do something that upsets your partner, make up for it with five positive things to balance the equation. Gottman asserts that he can predict relationship breakdowns based on this theory, and that unhappy couples will have more negative interactions than the ‘magic’  five to one ratio

At the Family Peace Foundation, we acknowledge that some level of negativity in relationships is inevitable, even in a stable relationship. The key message is that positivity nourishes relationships. Gottman suggests that couples can increase the number of positive interactions they have by practicing gratitude.

Need an action plan? For the next month, try going out of your way to regularly demonstrate appreciation and respect for one another. This is something that can get lost and forgotten over time but its benefits should never be underestimated.