Tavris and Aronson inform us that Gottman has identified a crucial factor in successful marriage relationships. He calls it the “magic ratio.” Successful couples, Gottman says, have at least five positive interactions, meaning expressions of affirmation, affection or love, for every negative one, such as expressions of annoyance or complaint. Gottman has found that “it doesn’t matter if the couple is emotionally volatile, quarreling eleven times a day, or emotionally placid, quarreling once a decade; it is the ratio that matters.” When the ratio drops below five to one couples start “rewriting their love story” in a negative way. Trouble is coming in the relationship.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “the tongue has the power of life and death.” Gottman’s findings clearly bear this out. James wrote, “if anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man” (James 3:2). He says that unfortunately the human tongue “corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire” (James 3:6). We can use our words to affirm, to express appreciation and love, or we can use them to defend ourselves, to attack others, to try to change them or to criticize them. Our choice is between given life or causing death.
I suspect that we rarely reflect on the power of our own words. We don’t carefully think about the ratio of affirmation to complaint or criticism that we express. Yet John Gottman has confirmed what God’s Word told us a long time ago. We should think about what we say and how we say it. Paul wrote that we should say “Only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Only what builds others up. This is true of all our relationships. It is crucial to unity and real fellowship in the body of Christ. But it is critically true in our marriages. Here is one thing we can do that is guaranteed to increase love and to build trust, intimacy and joy in our marriages. We can make it our goal to inundate our spouses with words of affirmation, appreciation and affection. It is a simple choice that is in our control. As James says, if we do not make that choice we run the very real risk of setting our marriage on fire.