As an educator, at the end of a semester, I have equally conflicting emotions of both joy and dread. I’m excited to see how much my students have progressed during the class, but I’m also nervous about receiving my evaluations from the students. Did they learn a lot? Did they feel the same way about the class that I did? Most of the time, I receive glowing evaluations from happy students. But every now and then, I would get one that is poor. Maybe the student thought I gave too much homework, or the tests were too hard. So I would have 19 positive evaluations and 1 negative one. Guess what I focused on? Yes, unfortunately, I would focus on the negative one. Even though I had so many positive ones, I would just think about that negative one. And you know what else? I’m not alone. According to researchers, people are more likely to remember negative events than positive ones. Part of it is because of the way we process negative and positive emotions, according to Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University. Negative emotions tend to involve more ruminating, so they are processed more thoroughly than positive emotions. We also use stronger words to describe negative experiences than positive ones. That’s why we are more likely to remember that time our passport was stolen while on vacation in Spain rather than the lovely day we spent at the beach.
So how does this relate to our stepfamily life?
How often do you find yourself criticizing your stepchildren? What about your husband? Does it feel like you’re complimenting them more than criticizing them? I hope you answered “yes” to that last question because researchers have found we need five positive interactions to outweigh each negative interaction during a conflict.
Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson wanted to understand the difference between happy and unhappy marriages, so they conducted a series of studies on married couples. They asked the couples to solve a conflict in their relationship, and then they observed the couples for 15 minutes to see how they interacted with each other. After following up with the couples 9 years later, they were able to predict with over 90% accuracy which couples would stay together. That’s where that ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction during conflict comes in. Happy couples had a healthy ratio of positive to negative interactions, while unhappy couples had an unhealthy ratio, which typically led to divorce. While conflicts are inevitable, how couples treat each other during conflicts is one of the keys to a lasting relationship.
For everyday life, the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions is higher. The magic ratio for our day-to-day interactions is 20 positive interactions to every one negative interaction.
The results of these studies are also important for our interactions with our stepchildren. How are we handling conflict with them? When we’re critical of them, are we also pointing out the things they did well? Are we hitting that 5:1 ratio with them during a conflict and the 20:1 ratio during our everyday life?
So what qualifies as a negative interaction?
Negative interactions include eye-rolling, becoming defensive, and being critical. Ignoring someone or treating them in a dismissive way also count as negative interactions. We can counteract these negative interactions with positive ones, such as expressing appreciation, being thoughtful, and complimenting our partner or stepchildren. A little kindness or empathy goes a long way when we’re trying to solve a conflict with someone else. Just taking a moment to consider the issue from the other person’s perspective can help us understand why that person might have reacted a certain way. For more ideas on how to encourage empathy in your stepfamily, click here.
How can we maintain this 5:1 ratio?
First, you’ll want to take note of your interactions with your husband and stepchildren over a one-week period. Figure out your ratio of positive to negative interactions. If you do find yourself struggling with the positive interactions, then you’ll want to be more intentional about incorporating positive interactions in your relationships. I have compiled a list of what I like to call “I care” strategies to help you get started.
- Leave notes for your husband and stepchildren in their lunch or on the fridge.
- Surprise them with a snack or a drink that you know they like.
- Say “thank you” even for the little things.
- Give hugs and kisses often.
- Empathize with them. “What you’re going through must be rough.”
- Make a special meal for them.
- Listen to them. “What happened? Tell me more.”
- Spend quality time together. Go for a walk or a bike ride.
- If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to apologize and admit you were wrong.
- Give compliments.
- Remember that you’re on the same team.
Showing your stepchildren and your husband that you care about them is important to build a trusting and loving foundation for your relationship. You’ll also want to remember these “I care” strategies while you’re trying to solve a conflict. Even if you’re arguing with your husband, by touching him on the arm, and saying, “I love you. This is hard for me to say, but I think this will help us in the long run,” you can diffuse tension and reassure your husband that you want the best outcome for you as a couple. Another benefit is once you start being intentional about practicing these “I care” strategies, you’ll notice that your family members will follow your lead and start practicing them as well. Above all, remember the magic ratios of 5:1 during a conflict and 20:1 for everyday life, and your relationships within your stepfamily will be stronger.