The 5:1 Rule on Building Trust in Marriage

In our previous post we described the rewards of making regular deposits into our partner’s Emotional Trust Bank Account. In fact research by Dr. John Gottman and our own personal experience suggests that what really separates healthy and thriving couples from those in marital misery is a specific balance between the negative and positive feelings and actions toward one another, especially during times of conflict. So for a moment here we are simply looking at how the couple interacts with one-another when the chips are down, when they don’t see eye-to-eye. You can probably identify with those times.

The research is clear that we need to produce at least 5 positive indications and responses for every negative one to find our way to healthy resolution of conflict and re-securing shaky trust. We see this truth borne out at every Retreat we do.

In the heat of the moment

At a recent Retreat I tuned in carefully to a couple, Millie and Tony, as they worked through a very painful and delicate issue that had brought their relationship to the brink. They both harbored hurt and resentment which, if a couple is not careful and aware, can lead to being swept away in negative emotions and blame. They had spent much of the previous year of conflict in a state of emotional and trust account bankruptcy and it was hard to break out of old habits. And indeed, in this conversation, this good couple found their voices rising a time or two, and Millie said once, “Are you blind! What were you thinking?!”

As the conversation went on I gave them some coaching but, more often than not, they caught themselves in time to right the ship. On the image I have noted some of Millie’s actual words. Her exasperated statement is on the right, and on the left you can see five more positive expressions expressed during part of the conversation that, in turn:

  1. Validated Tony’s feelings
  2. Let him know that she was working to understand his perspective
  3. Apologized for her demeaning comment
  4. Brought up a positive memory and his part in it
  5. Thanked Tony for his efforts at showing her patience

This was an hour-long conversation and there were a couple of more examples of flaring emotions, but far more instances of open, positive, and accountable statements that led Tony and Millie to a sense of unity and trust. They weren’t keeping score of withdrawals and deposits, but they were consciously making efforts to make honest deposits into one-another’s emotional and trust bank accounts and they ended up staying well within the solvency of the 5:1 rule, finding solutions and, more important, forgiveness.

It is worth the effort!

Obviously, when we are getting along with our spouse it feels easier to say and do positive and affirming things. It seems easier to keep a positive cycle of Thoughts, Behaviors, and Feelings going. During those times 8 or 10 to 1 might not be a stretch.

When you were dating that number probably seemed forever attainable, but somehow slowly got turned upside-down to where you find yourself today. How do you get yourself turned right side up again? Well, consciously creating lots of positive trust account deposits, and fewer negative ones will be a big part of the answer. Remember, the Make and Keep promises plan is one way we can consciously create more positive deposits. You will find something powerful in bringing that same level of consciousness, and even planning, to making many other deposits moment to moment every day.

Begin right now. You can choose to dwell on the problems and disappointments in your relationship, and talk endlessly about your partner’s negatives. That is guaranteed to create stress and drain the well-being from both of your accounts and the marriage. Or you can set your mind to be grateful. You can choose to notice and appreciate the good things in your relationship and about your spouse. Instead of making a sarcastic remark, you can offer a sincere compliment, they both take about the same amount of effort, and the compliment will bring a much better result than the sarcasm. Instead of complaining or nagging, tell your partner what you appreciate about him or her. By increasing the ratio of positives in your relationship, you will increase the level of happiness and satisfaction you both feel.The rewards will come quickly.