A Guarantee for a Better Marriage

28 years ago, I started my studies for a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling, a degree that would take 3 years to finish. 27 years ago, in the midst of those studies, my wife Deanna and I were married. Very quickly the academic studies became practical realities. Over the last 27 years, Deanna and I have read marriage books, went to marriage conferences and retreats and intentionally done a great deal to invest in our marriage. Some of those things were quite helpful, and our marriage has continued to get better with time, but none of the things we have heard in all of that time is the perfect silver bullet that is guaranteed to give us the perfect marriage. Part of that is there is no one thing that you can do that will permanently check the box marked “good marriage”. Instead, there are things we can learn, that when practiced daily with intentionality, can keep our marriages on the right track over a lifetime. One of the most important of which is what I’m writing about today.

One of the first marriage books I read was His Needs, Her Needs. Overall it is a pretty good book, but the most helpful concept I took away from that book was the idea that we have a “love tank” and every interaction you have with your spouse is either pouring into that tank or taking out of it. The more full the tank is, the more your marriage operates in love and grace and the less any one negative withdrawal impacts your marriage. There are many ways that we make deposits and withdrawals and another book that has some helpful concepts about ways we demonstrate our love in ways that are most meaningful to our spouse is The Five Love Languages. If you want to improve your marriage over time, learning to make these deposits is essential.

Recently, I was reading a more recent study about what is perhaps the most frequent way that we make deposits and withdrawals in all of our loved ones tanks, our words. Dr. John Gottman and Robert Levenson began studying couples in order to see if they could identify key differences between unhappy and happy couples. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes and then sat back and watched. They then followed these couples over the course of 9 years and in the end, based on what they had learned, they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which couples would divorce with over 90% accuracy.

What was their predictor? Something they called the “magic ratio”. Of course, it isn’t actually magic, but the power it has in a marriage is magical. The greatest predictor they found was the amount of positive and negative interactions during a conflict. The magic ratio was 5 to 1. That means that for every one negative interaction during a time of conflict, a healthy, happy marriage has at least 5 positive interactions. “When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.” By contrast, the closer a couple is to more of a 1 to 1 ratio, the higher the prediction of a looming divorce grows.

Examples of Negative interactions:

  • Criticism
  • Cutting sarcasm
  • Eye Rolling
  • Contempt
  • Dismissive of ideas or emotions

These are often unique to each marriage and part of being a couple is learning what things impact your spouse in the most powerful ways, both positively and negatively.

Examples of Positive Interactions:

  • Affection through touch or words
  • Appreciation for positives in your marriage or spouse
  • Showing empathy and understanding
  • Showing interest verbally or non-verbally
  • Playful teasing or joking
  • Remembering things that are important/valued by your spouse
  • Accepting their perspective as valid, even if you don’t agree
  • Looking for a middle ground that you can both agree on
  • Apologizing for any offense

Again, which of these are most meaningful to your spouse is something that you learn in time as you grow closer together. In a healthy relationship, we learn our spouse and love them more effectively because of the things that we have learned. In a destructive relationship, it is possible to learn all the wrong buttons to press to more easily add to the list of negative interactions. As we learn to pay attention to our interactions, it becomes easier to see where our ratio might be out of balance and start to make conscious decisions to move towards the kind of marriage that we should all want to have.

Once you start to look at a study like this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the truths that they have uncovered are very well represented in the truth from God’s Word. The Bible has a great deal to say about the subject of speech and the tongue. Here are just a few of the examples:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 18:21 NIV

Death and life are a very good parallel for negative and positive interactions. Another way to describe it would be interactions that give life and interactions that give death. Positive interactions give life to your marriage, they help fill your spouse’s love tank and they move your marriage in the direction of the beautiful picture of oneness that God has in mind. Anyone who has experienced this “life” will love to “eat its fruit.”

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Proverbs 16:24 NIV

This Proverb is a wonderful model for positive interactions. We want to give our spouse what is sweet to their soul and healing to their bones. That is a picture of what “life-giving” means.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 

James 3:7-10 NIV

And this stern warning is of the other side of the coin, the dangerous power of a tongue unleashed without caution. James give the impression that the default state of our speech is poison, but in reality he is submitting his tongue to his God, knowing that it is only within the power of God to tame the tongue. This is the real hope for a lasting marriage and the only true guarantee. While the research shows that if you follow the ratio of positive and negative you will have over a 90% chance of a happy marriage, if two people move beyond that and pursue a marriage that is not based on their own abilities to treat each other well, but instead on the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit working through them, they will have a much more valuable guarantee.

With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:2-3

So as you mind the ratio of your positive and negative, don’t forget the standards given to us here and other places, where the ratio is not 5 to 1, but instead all humility, all gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. That is a ratio that will never fail and put your marriage on a path with Christ and His eternal power, not with your own weaknesses.

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