How successful couples maintain a positive relationship over time

by | Feb 8, 2021 | Couples & Relationships, Mental Health

Valentine’s day can be a polarizing holiday for many. Some may genuinely look forward to a day devoted to romance while others may hate the commercialization or pressures of the day. Whether you are more likely to vilify or extoll its virtues, if nothing else, the date can serve as a little reminder to take inventory of how your relationships are going.

How do successful couples maintain a positive relationship over time? Interestingly, success in relationships is not about avoiding or eliminating conflict but rather about managing the relational bank account. Conventional wisdom would guess that happier couples probably have more positive as opposed to negative interactions. Research shows this to be true, finding that magic happens at a 5:1 ratio, with successful couples engaging in at least 5 positive interactions to 1 negative (Gottman, 1994). In couples that do not succeed, this ratio is, unsurprisingly, skewed more highly towards the negative.

Five ideas for cultivating this magic ratio from John Gottman, Ph.D. (a leader in couples research) include:

  1. Be interested: This is a simple approach in theory but can be tough to do in reality when other distractions interfere. Instead, when your partner, child, friend tells you something, stop for a moment to really attend to what they are saying. The response could be an enthusiastic response (“No kidding! I can’t believe that happened again!”). However, interest can be expressed in a more muted manner by simply acknowledging the other person nonverbally by turning towards them, looking at them, and, when appropriate, responding with the odd “Huh” or “Oh”.
  2. Be appreciative: It’s often easier to think back to all the ways that you have been contributing to the household or the relationship. After all, you are always there to account for when you have taken out the garbage or made dinner. It can be more difficult, particularly when a relationship is facing a lull or hardship, to reflect on the positive things your partner does or the good experiences you have shared. However, by spending the time honoring the positive aspects about your partner you can help keep a positive ratio in your relationship even when conflict inevitably arises. You can further strengthen your relationship by sharing these positive thoughts with your partner by letting them know the ways you know that you have got it good!
  3. Be accepting: The existence of conflict is natural and can even offer opportunities for deepening our relationships. Even if you don’t see eye to eye with your partner, respond to their perspective with respect. Again, a subtle “uh-huh” or “yeah” without interrupting or immediately disagreeing with your partner’s point of view can open space for your partner to feel that they are being listened to and accepted. To take this a step further, try to summarize what your partner is telling you can help your partner feel understood even if you both continue to disagree on the issue.
  4. Be caring: Grand gestures can certainly have romantic potential and appeal, but it really is the little things that can make all of the difference in a relationship. Little acts of caring like sweeping the snow off their car in the morning, buying their favorite snack if you stop at the grocery store, or sending them a text to wish them luck on their presentation that day can all have a big impact. These little actions can all help the other person to feel cared for.
  5. Be empathic: This technique needs to be applied genuinely. False expressions of empathy may drive the person farther away from you. Showing empathy involves understanding of both the why and the how of your partner’s emotions. Why are they feeling the way that they are and how are they feeling? Empathy can be expressed wordlessly, such as through a concerned expression on your face. Empathy can be extended further by giving a name to their emotional experience (“I bet that felt pretty crushing to get that kind of feedback after working so hard”). 

Currently single? Feel free to apply the magic ratio to yourself! Try this out: Take 15 minutes to track how many negative compared to positive thoughts you have about yourself during this time. It can be helpful to do this with a checkbox to help you accurately track. Are you naturally meeting or exceeding this ratio? If yes, great, keep it up! If not, a first step to changing this pattern is being aware that this automatic tendency exists. If you did the exercise, you have already made some strides towards change. Techniques listed above, such as being appreciative and caring, can be translated towards developing a positive relationship with yourself.

Regardless of whatever Valentine’s day may (or may not) mean to you, let it and all your other days be full of magic!


IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is intended for general use. It is not meant to provide specific recommendations for your situation. If you or someone you love are suffering, please reach out for support from a licensed health professional, access community support such as calling the Alberta Health Services mental health line (1-877-303-2642), the mental health crisis line through HealthLine (1-888-737-4668), or contacting the distress centre at (403) 266-1601. If you need urgent help and are afraid for your own or someone else’s safety, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.


Gottman, J. and Silver, N., 1994. Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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