- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Building a Culture of Appreciation
Instead of falling into the cycle or criticism where you notice every fault and correct every mistake, try building a culture of appreciation in your relationship.
The Magic Ratio for Relationship Success
Relationships thrive on positive interactions. The Gottman Institute does amazing research on what makes couples last and they've found that happy, long-lasting couples have a ratio of 5 good interactions for every 1 negative interaction.
Think of it like this, to keep the balance you need:
1 "I love you"
1 Unexpected hug
1 Conversation about a topic your partner loves
1 Hearty laugh at a joke your partner made
1 "Thank you for doing the dishes!"
1 Snippy comment that hurts their feelings
Happy, long-lasting couples have a ratio of 5 good interactions to every 1 negative interaction.
A 5:1 ratio seems very reasonable. However, you may not realize just how easy it is to fall into bad patterns of focusing on the negative with your partner and skipping over all the positives.
It Can be Harder than it Sounds
Humans have a hard time with positive reinforcement. We tend to think that if we point out the things that aren't going well, we'll help the other person change for the better. For example, we comment on the recurring wet towel on the bathroom floor or the empty water glass right next to (but not in) the dishwasher. This constant correction can become a bad habit that couples develop, leading to feelings of being targeted and unappreciated. When couples are in this negative cycle they tend to focus even more on the negatives, and each partner is less willing to show gratitude because they feel like they haven't gotten any gratitude ("they're not being nice to me so why should I be appreciative of them?!").
In these negative cycles, the 5:1 ratio is out the window.
To keep this ratio, you need to be fostering a lot more positive interactions in your relationship. This is a habit that you can develop, and trust me when I say, it will make a notable difference in your relationship satisfaction.
This is a habit that you can develop, and trust me when I say, it will make a notable difference in your relationship satisfaction.
We can get into good habits in our relationship just as easily as we can fall into bad ones.
It's the same as in our individual lives. Have you noticed how making one positive choice (making the bed instead of leaving it messy) can start a cycle of making more positive choices? Once that bed looks great you probably won't want to crawl back into it for another 15 minutes, and suddenly you won't be snoozing the morning away. It feels great to have started your day on time, so maybe you'll feel like getting in a quick meditation before work, then you choose a healthy breakfast instead of skipping the meal, and so forth. Doing good makes us feel good, which is reinforcing and will encourage us to keep doing those things.
Upward spirals are possible in our relationships, too. And the easiest way to shift from criticism to gratitude is by starting small.
Research Says: Reinforce the Good
At the end of the day, humans are animals, and animal behaviors can be shaped by conditioning. Years and years of research have proven this. And by far the most effective way of shaping behavior is through positive reinforcement.
If you're pointing out the dishes in the sink with a passive aggressive way, or rolling your eyes when your partner loses their keys, or yelling at them for being late, you're trying to use punishment to change their behavior. And although this might make them feel guilty and can perhaps lead to some short-term improvements, it also leads to resentment and distance. Reward, on the other hand, reinforces what you love and appreciate about your partner, strengthens closeness, and leads to positive change.
The fact is: reward is better than punishment.
We can use this fact to help shape better behavior patterns in our partner and in our relationship.
The fact is: reward is better than punishment.
How to Do It
The good news is, it's incredibly easy to reinforce the good and build a culture of appreciation. Here's how.
1. When your partner does something kind, thoughtful, or helpful- notice it and thank them. Right then and there, the moment it happens.
Thank you for taking the dog out, that was so nice of you, especially on this rainy day!
I noticed how clean the living room was as soon as I got home, it looks amazing! I
appreciate that you tidied everything up, it makes our home so wonderful.
Hey love, thanks for hanging up my jacket. I know I left it on the floor, it was sweet of
you to do that for me.
See how easy that is? Doesn't have to be an essay on how appreciate you are, but a little explanation of what they did and why you're thankful can go a long way. For a week, try doing this at every opportunity you find. Make it a habit to observe and reinforce the positive.
2. Be thankful after the fact, too. While reinforcing in the moment is great, it's also incredibly beneficial to communicate belated gratitude to your partner. It might be a text while you're at work to thank them for taking care of the kids so you could get out the door on time, or it might be a lengthier expression of gratitude on a date night where you share how much they mean to you.
3. There's no harm in an unsolicited compliment or loving remark. Don't wait for your partner to do something gratitude-worthy, appreciate them at any time you want! The random, "Hey, I hope you know how much I love you" can mean so much to your partner. Whenever the mood strikes, wrap them up in a big hug and tell them something that you appreciate. Send an unexpected text about a personality trait you absolutely love. Don't hold back from being loving.
For a week, try doing this at every opportunity you find. Make it a habit to observe and reinforce the positive.
You Can Do It Alone
Maybe you have gotten into some bad patterns in your relationship, where criticism is a common occurrence and gratitude is hard to come by. It's not too late to change that pattern.
If you want to have a happier relationship, then start by making the change in yourself. Be kind and appreciate of your partner. Work on identifying and eliminating unnecessary criticisms of them. You alone can create the positive change in your relationship by using the strategies above and fostering, as Gottman says, a culture of appreciation.
Try It Out!
Don't wait- go home today and show some gratitude, give your partner a big bear hug, or do something special for them. Notice how easy it is to get into a good habit of being kind and loving. Foster appreciation in your relationship and watch it grow.