Positive and Negative Words –
Why the 5-to-1 Ratio Works

by Peggy Bert

Why do many of us remember all the negative things (in detail) that our spouse did or said from the beginning of the relationship until today? Why do we remember critical remarks more than positives ones? Why can’t a critical remark simply be erased by a positive remark? Why can’t a big bouquet of roses from him or a coveted ticket to his favorite sporting event from her make up for several things that caused hurt feelings? There is a reason. No, it’s not just a woman thing. You can blame it on the brain.

Studies conducted by Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago have shown what he calls, “the negativity bias” of the brain. Negatives have a much greater impact on our brain. Our brains are actually more sensitive and responsive to unpleasant news and remarks. That’s why personal insults or criticism hit us harder and stay with us longer. It’s why negative ads are more effective than positive ones—political or otherwise. Our brain contains a built-in partiality toward negative information.

It’s a Numbers Game

We live in a world clouded by negatives. We can absorb a high number of negatives in one day’s time. Negatives increase disproportionately over positives. It’s not a one-to-one ratio. In other words, one positive cannot offset one negative— one negative cannot be erased by one positive remark. When you tell your husband, “Thanks for giving the kids a bath, honey,” and five minutes later you whisper, “You forgot to take out the trash—again,” what just happened? Your whisper sounded like a shout. In his brain, the negative drowned out the positive. It’s like the positive remark was never heard.

Our brain needs a higher number of positive entries than negative ones to counterbalance the built‑in negativity bias. Several small, frequent, positive acts pack more punch than one giant-size positive. The size of the positive is not what counts; it’s the quantity. It’s strictly a numbers game.

For example, that’s why a husband who gave his wife an expensive surprise birthday party at a fine restaurant wondered why it didn’t improve their deteriorating marriage. Why? Because it could not make up for his daily negative behavior and remarks. A wife’s gift to her husband of that new riding mower he had his eye on did not compensate for her continual nagging and critical comments. No matter how big the positive is, it won’t work. One super-size positive cannot offset multiple negatives.

The Right Formula

How many positives are needed to offset one negative? At least two-to-one, experts say. Researchers have concluded that when applying this formula to our most intimate relationships, like marriage, the ratio of positives must be even higher. Among those researchers is psychologist Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington. Gottman says the formula should be five‑to‑one for married couples. So how do you accomplish that? Increase positives while reducing negatives. Boost the frequency of small positive acts so that the ratio reaches five-to-one.

Essential Steps to Success

1. Make a Written List. (Okay, I hear you groaning.)

Write down at least fifteen of your mate’s positive qualities or talents. (Add more weekly for four weeks.) Does he or she:  Balance the checkbook? Wash the car? Cut the grass? Work diligently at their profession? Help with housework? Grocery shop? Spend time with the children? Check household equipment? Make you laugh? Cook? Give you time for yourself? Manage money well? Provide a second income? How does your spouse make your life nicer?

2.  Practice “The Daily Double”

Say at least two positive things about your mate—to your mate—every day for the next seven days. (One day, try slipping a note into their pocket or onto their pillow, or tape it to a mirror.) Refrain from pointing out any negatives for at least one week. No negatives. Zip. Zero. (Yes, you can do this. The rewards will be worth it.)

3. Avoid Interrupting Your Spouse when they’re speaking.

Try this for 7 days. This may be a bit more challenging for powerful personalities. We women could struggle here because female brains process facts and emotions at the same time. More thoughts bounce around our head that we want to blurt out. If you fail, don’t beat yourself up—just start over. Most people interrupt others in less than twenty seconds.

4. Compliment Your Spouse in front of others—including the children—(and ladies—especially your girlfriends). Don’t pour it on thick, but it should be true and conveyed sincerely. It’s better if they hear it, but it’s not necessary. You’re developing a habit. Don’t say anything negative.

5. Look for Humor in Any Situation. Be quick to smile or laugh. A daily dose of humor, learning to laugh at ourselves, and laughing together lightens any load.

6. Express Thanks and Appreciation to your spouse, and to God, for their qualities—and what they do. Again, don’t overdo it. Speak softly, look into their eyes, and choose the right moment to express it.

Life-Changing Choices

Too many negative remarks can lead to a breaking point in our marriage. Do you feel you may have reached a slight “slump” or a low point in your marriage? If you knew that practicing the principles and simple steps outlined here could refresh—or even transform—your marriage, would you be willing to try?

Five-to-One is Very Doable.

The combination of positive words and actions spells: Success. Start eliminating negatives every day. Add words of encouragement and acts of consideration—one day at a time. Positive words have the power to melt away the sadness that negative words have caused. Many husbands, wives, and children are starving emotionally. They crave just a few crumbs of kindness and affirmation. Give them:

The Positive High-Five:

1.  A meaningful touch

2. A listening ear

3. Approval without conditions

4. A kind act

5. Spending time with them, doing what they like

Positive words and acts will lead to a happier life and a stronger marriage. A person will gravitate to that individual or place where they feel most appreciated. It’s human nature. We’re made to function and perform better in an atmosphere of accolades, appreciation, and affection.

Before we speak, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Does this really need to be said?
  • Does the other person want to hear it?
  • Does it build them up?
  • Is it wise?
  • Is it going to better me?
  • Is it going to better the other person?
  • Can it be said gently, kindly, and with love?
  • Does it give a blessing?

Pleasant words are a honeycomb; Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
–Ancient Proverb

© 2010 Peggy Bert

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