The Secret to Joyful Relationships

Tom Golden LCSW

After years of research and clinical data psychotherapists have come to some very interesting conclusions about what makes a successful relationship. The first and possibly most important element has to do with the flow of positive feedback within the relationship. We have known that positive and complimentary comments are indeed helpful in successful relationships, but what the latest research has shown is that there should be at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative comments! For every negative comment we hear from our spouses we need to hear at least five positive comments. The most successful couples have this ratio or better.

What impact does this have in couples therapy? Simple. In my own work with couples I have found that therapy can act as a place to rekindle the spark that originally brought the relationship together. When this positive flow is re-ignited, the relationship is given a dose of badly needed energy. So often with the stresses of today's harried lifestyles we neglect to fully appreciate those we love. By slowing down and restarting a positive flow we begin to see that we are indeed loved and respected by our spouse---who perhaps has recently become more of an adversary than a loving partner. I have yet to see a couple who didn't want to rekindle this original feeling. With many couples this life-giving energy is simply blocked by the numerous unresolved power struggles that lie dormant in the marriage.

Another finding of relationship research has to do with our ability to disagree productively. Investigators have found that the most successful couples were the ones who were able to "fight peacefully" and emerge from the disagreement with love and respect. This is difficult to do but not impossible! Fighting peacefully is a skill, and as such can be taught and practiced. Unfortunately, most of us never received training in how to do this successfully.

University of Washington psychologist John Gottman studied 130 newlyweds over a six-year period in trying to determine predictors of successful marriages. What he found is both shocking and interesting. He undertook the study assuming that "active listening" would be a major predictor in marital happiness, but the data clearly showed that active listening was not a predictor of marital success. Gottman found that trying to force active listening was like expecting "emotional gymnastics." Generally, one of the partners didn't find talking and reflecting extensively about feelings and the relationship as being his or her cup of tea. Expecting these spouses (who often but not always were the men) to do this was not helpful.

What did Gottman find was helpful? He found that the men who were "accepting of influence of their wives" were more likely to end up in happy, stable marriages. Autocrats and those men unwilling to hear and respond to their wives desires and requests were doomed from the start.

The study also found that women who "couched their complaints in a gentle soothing, perhaps even humorous approach to the husband were more likely to have happy marriages than those who were belligerent." Gottman says, "There has to be a kind of gentleness in the way conflict is managed, men have to be more accepting of a woman's position, and women have to be more gentle in starting up discussions."

Therapy is a great place to begin to learn these skills and start back on the road of working out disagreements in a productive way that honors both partners. In my own work with couples I have found that a sure path to success is to deepen the sense of friendship between the husband and wife. This is helpful in itself but it also paves the way for finding mutually satisfying solutions to the major disagreements in the relationship. With practice and a recognition of the potential joy inherent in the relationship, couples can make their marriage life's most successful and rewarding relationship.


Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027