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A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There’s some real truth to this. I spend most of my working week with happy and unhappy families alike, and they’re all unique. But Tolstoy is on to something profound with regard to happy families. Despite even their uniqueness, there is at least one important similarity. It’s sort of a “secret formula.”

The truth is, I think most of us are painfully mistaken about what true happiness really is. We live in an era that gives us unprecedented insight into the lives and loves of our friends through the sun-kissed images we see posted online. Of course we can never measure up. We fall short, not just of our neighbor but also of our own idea of what a couple should be.

May I please disabuse you of the notion that there is a specific way that a couple should be. The truth is that no relationship is absent of conflict. Nobody’s kids are perfect. No one looks exactly like the images they post online. Indeed, none of those things lead to happiness. There is, however, one characteristic that can be found amongst the many different kinds of happy marriages.

The secret formula is actually pretty simple. Essentially, it’s this: Be positive. During his three decades of research into couple relationships, Dr. John Gottman found that all happy couples enjoy a surplus of positive sentiment at a ratio of about 5:1—meaning that for every one negative in their relationship, there were five positives. This was true of all happy couples no matter where they fell on the grander view of relationship health.

Consider that relationships exist on a matrix of Happy/Unhappy and Stable/Unstable. That leaves you with four types of couples:

  • Happy–Stable
  • Happy–Unstable
  • Unhappy–Stable
  • Unhappy–Unstable

For today, let’s focus on Happy–Stable relationships because that’s probably the area you’d like to be in. These relationships fall into three categories. The first two will make sense. The third may surprise you.

HappyStable Couple #1: Conflict Avoiders. These guys simply don’t get distressed during conflict discussions. They generally agree that their differences are not that important. They tend to focus on what they have in common rather than the ways that they differ. They believe in the power of time and distance. They’d rather settle for a general discomfort than deal with the pain of conflict. Both partners are pretty independent. They have strong boundaries, maybe even from one another. You will never see these guys on television because their interactions are generally pretty uneventful (read: boring). But that is what helps them remain happy and stable.

HappyStable Couple #2: Validating Couples. These folks are easy and calm; they’re pleasant to be around and generally pretty nice to one another. They are masters of empathy, working hard to hear and appreciate their partner’s point of view. Unlike the avoiders, they will address their differences but only the important ones. They can be competitive, but they’re also willing to compromise. They have a sense of humor with one another, and they’re good at accepting influence. They’re not super-emotional, focusing instead on picking their battles and seeking consensus. Their balance between strong individuality and mutual regard is what keeps them happy and stable.

HappyStable Couple #3: Volatile Couples. Volatile couples are intensely emotional, usually made up of two strong-willed people who simply set each other off. In conflict, they usually go straight to persuasion. They love debate and provocation. They also tease and laugh a lot. They are comfortable with discomfort and will revisit a topic or issue many times, circling it until they reach resolution through a combination of connection and honesty. They may appear angry, but they remain supportive of and connected to one another. Surprised to see these guys on the list? Don’t be. My wife and I qualify as a volatile couple, and I think we’re pretty happy and stable.

The Secret Formula

All three types of Happy–Stable couples have a secret formula. According to Dr. Gottman’s research, all three Happy–Stable groups are able to maintain a similar ratio of positive to negative affect in conflict discussion. As I said before, the ratio is 5:1. Think of it this way: Every positive interaction between you and your partner is worth a penny. Each negative interaction is worth a nickel. In order to maintain Happy–Stable status, it is critical that you put five pennies in for every nickel taken out. But don’t stop at five. I always say, nobody cares about losing a nickel if they have $100 in the bank. But if you only have 10 cents, it’s a lot harder to stay net positive. The key is to keep your balance of pennies high so that a nickel lost isn’t felt as much. You see, you can’t really anticipate when negativity will strike your relationship, so in order to maintain that golden ratio, if you will, you have to actively be building up your positive reserves all the time.

Each couple is vulnerable in its own unique way. But that vulnerability is mitigated by a strong leaning toward positive engagement. It’s pretty simple: Be nice. A lot. Whether you’re a conflict avoider, a validating couple, or a volatile couple, there is no substitute for kindness, gratitude, affection, and regard. You cannot underestimate the power of positive sentiment as a sustaining factor in happiness and stability for couples. Even if you fall somewhere else on the quadrant, try emphasizing kindness.

At the end of the day, maybe all those sun-kissed photos do mean something. They remind us of the many small sentiments that form the basis for our happiness. They certainly don’t represent the whole, but they do reinforce the positive moments that keep the stress and strain of the daily grind at bay.

I’d love to hear how you maintain the 5:1 ratio in your relationship. What are the small things that keep you happy and stable? Shoot me an email at, and I’ll see what I can do. You can also find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook.

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography