My first introduction to the “Magic Relationship Ratio” was in college, when I taught inmates at the Utah State Prison. Our curriculum was called “Learning Kindness in Families,” and we took our message of healing to criminal offenders who volunteered to come under guard to hear a bunch of jittery college students. One girl invited a burly man with life’s bad choices written all over his face to the front of the room. She asked him to drink from a little Dixie cup. The lemon juice instantly registered on his face. That sour experience was followed by instructions to drink five cups of water. After each one, she asked if he still had an acidic taste in his mouth. Finally, after the fifth cup, the effect was gone. She then taught a powerful lesson about relationships, comparing the lemon juice to criticism, anger, or negative remarks and the water to positive interactions. We need more than a little sip of water to negate the effects of a yucky taste, just like we need way more positive interactions to balance off even one negative comment. In fact, we need at least 5 positives to each negative.
Later, I taught a class for those ordered to improve parenting skills because they had harmed their child. My curriculum suggested parents maintain a 5 to 1 positive to negative ratio to improve the family culture. That same year, I studied classroom management as I began to teach child abuse prevention in the schools. I came across a study in an education textbook that trained teachers to always keep a 5 to 1 positive to negative ratio to create a learning environment. Now, I may be a little slow, but I was starting to get the picture!
As a newlywed, I picked up a book called “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last” by John Gottman. I was surprised, though I probably shouldn’t have been by then, that he noticed a surprising trend in marriage. In his research, he found that many different types of marriages, even relationships where the couple frequently argued, could be successful and happy…if they also maintained a 5 to 1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. Not only was I sold on the “Magic Relationship Ratio” by now, I was also delighted that my opinionated husband and his opinionated wife had a solid chance at happily ever after!
Then finally, as a foster parent with Girls and Boys Town, we learned a very structured teaching system for the teenagers in our care. Kids earned points for appropriate or inappropriate behaviors that were tallied on a point card to earn privileges. As we met with our support team, the biggest thing they looked for was that we had at least a 5 to 1 positive to negative ratio on the cards. No surprise. Based on their years of research, they found that in order for these kids who had been through so much to be open to learning anything from us, we had to keep the environment upbeat, positive, and therapeutic.
The same applies to us in our families. Like I said last week, “There isn’t a punishment effective enough, or a discipline technique clever enough to make any real and lasting improvement without a fun, warm, nurturing, positive atmosphere.” I have found this to be true. There’s nothing enchanted or voodoo about the 5 to 1 ratio, but you’ll feel like you’ve waved a magic wand at home when you start implementing a little more sweet and a lot less sour.
So, are you sold? Maybe you want to try to implement the “Magic Relationship Ratio.” You’re all geared up waiting for a chance to forever change your home. You eagerly look for something to praise. Then you see your kids throwing spaghetti on the ceiling and shoving corn up their noses, and your spouse picking their teeth and leaving their socks on the floor. There’s nothing positive to say!
Instead of bagging the experiment, focus on this: Praise Approximate Behavior. Perhaps your teenager is given a chore. They might roll their eyes, groan, and sulk off to do it. Ignore the junk, and simply say, “Thanks for starting your jobs.” They may be moving like an aristocrat to the guillotine, but they are moving. Find the bit of good, give it attention, and find the environment in your home changing from a tense and grumpy place, to a more peaceful, loving place.
Try it Today: I’ve found that lasting change best happens gradually. It may be helpful to set aside one time of the day, maybe at dinner or at afternoon story time, where you can “practice” increasing the positives with your family. Put a muzzle on any negative or correcting comments that you want to say. Bite your tongue, grit your teeth–whatever it takes–but no negatives. Put on glasses that only see the good, and you will see much better. If you made a chart last week, keep it again for a few days. Mark the positive and negative interactions you have with your family, and see if you can get at least 5 positives to every negative.
Feel free to comment! Let us know how it is going and congratulate yourself on the improvements!