The Surprisingly Simple Reason Why So Many Long-Term Relationships End


Romantic relationships certainly aren’t easy to sustain over time, as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of books, articles, apps, classes, retreats, and other offerings that exist to help diagnose and treat our ailing partnerships.

But one of the biggest reasons why so many of our long-term relationships fall apart may be surprisingly simple.

For context, let me first tell you a bit about Dr. John Gottman - a prominent psychologist and an expert in relationships and marriage stability.

In the 1970s, Dr. Gottman began conducting a number of longitudinal studies of couples. Among his findings, he discovered that a given couple’s happiness could be determined by looking at their ratio of positive to negative interactions.

More specifically, he uncovered a magic formula of sorts for happiness in relationships:

For every negative interaction a couple had, they needed to have 5 or more positive interactions in order to “balance out” and achieve relationship happiness.

This simple 5-to-1 ratio proved time and again to be determinative of a given couple’s happiness.

Now, many of us have been in long-term relationships that crept south at one point or another. Sometimes these partnerships met their end at the hands of a single catastrophic event, and sometimes they seemed to unravel more gradually, becoming less and less happy over time.

In reflecting on one of my own past relationships, as it neared its end, I distinctly recall feeling like the number of negative interactions that my partner and I had just kept piling higher. It got to the point where it seemed like we were constantly at odds with one another - caught in a negative cycle of interaction. And that dynamic, not surprisingly, made us both very unhappy.  

However, while that may have been an accurate characterization of my own partnership, researchers who have studied relationships at length have found that a different dynamic is frequently at play in these sorts of situations.

Namely, they’ve discovered that a given couple’s number of negative interactions tends to more or less stay the same over the course of their relationship. What more commonly shifts, in reality, is the number of positive interactions that one has with one’s partner. And that number most often decreases over time.

In other words, it’s typically not the case that we have an increasing number of negative interactions as our relationships mature. Rather, it just feels as if we do because the number of positive interactions that we have with our partners naturally tends to drop.

So, returning to Gottman’s findings, if we need to have 5 times as many positive interactions as negative ones in order to have happy, sustainable relationships, but the number of positive interactions that we have with our partners tends to decrease over time, it sounds like we’re doomed to fail, right?

Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. But if you want to save your long-term relationship from gradual decline, doing so will necessitate some action and intention on your part.

If you feel like your relationship has progressively become unhappy, here’s what you need to do:

Think of your relationship as akin to a bank account. Over the course of the relationship, you gradually learn how to take withdrawals from the account in order to meet your needs.

You ask your partner to do things for you. You count on them to support you or help you in certain circumstances. You learn how to take.

And it becomes easier to take the more often you engage in that behavior. You develop habits around the act so that, over time, you tend to find yourself making more and more of these withdrawals.

Eventually, inevitably, your account slips into the red. It gets overdrawn. And your relationship suffers.

But the good news is, there’s a very simple solution to this problem.

Whenever your relationship’s “account” has slipped down into the red (or, ideally, before it reaches this point), you need to start making regular deposits into the account to bring it back up into the black.

What might deposits entail?

  • Acts of love or kindness.

  • Moment of shared joy or laughter.

  • Really anything that instigates more positive interactions between you and your partner.

To paraphrase Leo Buscaglia, we too often underestimate how much power can be contained in a simple touch, a kind word, a smile, an honest compliment, a listening ear, or even the smallest act of caring -- all of which have the potential to turn a partnership around.

You simply need to take intentional steps to increase the number of positive interactions you have with your partner if you’d like to have a happy and resilient relationship.

Perhaps Anthony Robbins said it best when he explained that “some of the biggest challenges in relationships come from the fact that many people enter into a relationship in order to get something: they’re trying to find someone who’s going to make them feel good. In reality, the only way a relationship will last is if you see your relationship as a place that you go to give, and not a place that you go to take.”

So here’s my challenge for anyone who would like to cultivate their own happily-ever-after:

Learn how to invest in your relationship. Practice doing so regularly. Strive to be more conscientious in making ongoing “deposits” or positive contributions to it versus solely taking withdrawals from it.

If you need to, go ahead and set reminders for yourself to say something complimentary to your partner, or do something kind for them on a regular basis. Encourage your partner to try to do the same for you.

(As an aside, although you might want this process to be more natural, despite our best intentions, we don’t always naturally do the things that we need to or that we should to ensure our own happiness. Start by setting the reminders, and you’ll find that you’ll begin to develop habits around these behaviors with time and practice).

Recognize that you will need to make ongoing deposits of love, caring, and kindness into your relationship to keep it healthy and happy over time. Because while Gottman’s ratio of positive-to-negative interactions may provide us with a rubric to follow, the responsibility for seeing it through ultimately lies with us.