Marriage Essentials: Appreciation and Affection

Do you know that expressing appreciation is one of the essential ingredients of a happy marriage? That’s right. According to Dr. John Gottman’s research, we must express at least five positive interactions to neutralize the impact of one negative interaction. In really happy marriages, couples express 20 positives to every one negative. The mostly destructive interactions contain criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling. When we express ourselves in this way without effective repair attempts, Gottman predicts divorce with 94% accuracy.

Why do we need five positive to every one negative expressions to experience a healthy relationship? Neuroscientists say that we do not remember positive feelings as much as negative feelings. Positive feelings are like Teflon; they slide off easily. But uncomfortable feelings stick like Velcro. Why? Our brain’s primary mandate is to survive, so we pay most attention to things than can hurt us physically and emotionally.

The part of the brain that processes emotion is the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. So, in some ways, our brain cannot tell the difference between emotional pain and physical pain. When our loved one criticizes us or gives us the silent treatment, it registers just like physical pain. It really does hurt just as if someone hit us. According to Dr. Sue Johnson in the book Love Sense, that is why taking Tylenol can help reduce emotional pain as well as physical pain.

We are naturally sensitive to the feedback of the ones we love the most. One sharp criticism can send us into a tailspin. It hurts like boiling water splashing onto our hands. When we perceive a physical or emotional threat, our brain goes on high alert to keep us safe. We experience fight, flight or freeze, just like animals. During this time, we cannot think rationally so sometimes, we say things we regret.

With several unresolved conflicts, or one big injury, and few feelings of friendship, Dr. Gottman says that we go into “negative sentiment over-ride.” That means we are so charged with hurt, anger or fear that we automatically predict our partner will hurt us again. Even if she or he says something nice, it does not register with us because we are still trying to protect ourselves. It is hard to see the positives, even if they are there.

Black Couple 32 smilingFlourishing love looks like this:

Dr. Gottman found that the happiest couples express 20 positives to every one negative. They give compliments, share appreciations and affection. Their lovemaking stems from a solid base of emotional connection. They give meaningful gifts tailored to their loved one, remember important details about their partner’s life, and celebrate rituals like anniversaries and birthdays. They know each other’s dreams and help make them come true. They have fun, and they are good friends. They know how to resolve conflicts with effective compromise skills, or they have figured out how to live with their partner’s quirks that are not going to change. They speak in such a way that draws their partner close, even during conflicts. They listen and empathize to let their partner know they are understood and cared for.

The good news is that we can transform dysfunctional relationships. We can learn how to heal ourselves and help each other heal when we engage in couples counseling and individual counseling.

Contact me: Benita Esposito, MA, LPC. Appointments in-person, by phone or video-conference. Call for a complementary 10-minute interview.  770.998.6642. Email:

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Author: Benita A. Esposito, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor. Psychotherapy specializing in couples counseling and marriage counseling, depression, anxiety, healing family of origin issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Benita uses Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Dr. Sue Johnson and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.