I’m a “word person” more than a “math person”, so I was surprised that a mathematical formula can help us be successful in love.
The brains behind the formula is mathematician Dr. Hannah Fry who works at the UCL Center for Advanced Spacial Analysis in London. She used her unique expertise to explain in a TED Talk and book of the same name “The Mathematics of Love.” In short, Fry explains that the best predictor of long-lasting relationships is the level of positive and negative experiences with one another. She analyzed data from psychologist marriage expert John Gottman, who observed couples for many years in conversations with their partners.
As many of us know through our own experiences, happier couples have more positive interactions with one another. Couples who are less happy and at higher risk of breakup have fewer positive interactions. But there’s more to it. One of the reasons how they deal with negative situations is important is that couples with lots of positivity give one another the benefit of the doubt when their partner is negative. They dismiss a negative comment or action as unusual and may attribute it to fatigue or stress at work. Those in more negative relationships tend to do the reverse. A negative comment is considered “typical” or “normal” and the actions are attributed to the person. For example, a grumpy comment may reinforce the thought that the partner is selfish or unkind. The negativity then can spiral downward.
We may not realize our daily reactions and interactions with our spouse can influence our relationship so much. A spouse who agrees or encourages in response to a comment is likely to receive a positive response back. A spouse who interrupts, dismisses or ignores is likely to receive a negative response back, and perhaps start a spiral down to more frustration or anger. One of the largest predictors of divorce was therefore related to positive or negative reactions, with more positive couples having a low risk of divorce and more negative couples having a high risk of divorce.
The surprising twist is that Fry surmised that the best relationships would have a “high negativity threshold” bringing up issues only if they were very important. The opposite was true. “The most successful relationships are the ones with really low negativity threshold,” Fry writes. They constantly repair the tiny issues between them, not allowing any to grow and fester. So while they have more positive interactions, they are not afraid to have a negative interaction if it means repairing part of the relationship that needs to be fixed. Perhaps they have a more positive or gentler way of addressing those issues if positivity is their more frequent pattern.
Fry’s formula also factors in the wife’s or husband’s mood when alone and with their spouse. If you want the formula and its explanation, check out her Ted Talk. It’s in the last third of the talk, following math tips for online dating and how to pick the perfect partner. Incidentally, she says the formula works the same for two spouses as it does for two countries in an arms race.