The Formula for Fairytales

Published | Tags: , , , ,

Growing up I loved being read bedtime fairytales. The most important stories in my mind always ended with the same phrase: “And they all lived happily ever after.” Yet, I never could imagine my princes and princesses in any sort of married life. They weren’t couples doomed to argue over who did the dishes, or how to raise children, they just lived in the same continued bliss of their courtship, never getting older or becoming less in love, no matter how many years passed.

Now that I’m older, however, I realize how much work goes into finding “happily ever after;” it isn’t something that comes easy after finding the perfect fit for that glass slipper. That being said, I am always looking for a quick answer to one big question. Is there any way to tell whether a relationship is destined for a disastrous divorce or if it’s a happily ever after fairytale? According to Mathematician Hannah Fry, it may be as simple as a formula.

In her newly released book The Mathematics of Love, Fry explains that the best predictor of a long-lasting relationship is how positive or negative a couple can be to each other.

Fry states, “In relationships where both partners consider themselves as happy, bad behavior is dismissed as unusual.” For example, a spouse who generally sees their partner as kind and chipper is quick to dismiss an angry outburst as a bad day, while “In negative relationships… the situation is reversed: bad behavior is considered the norm.”

This does not mean that negativity can never happen in a relationship in order for it to be long-lasting. Instead, Hannah Fry found that couples who have a “low negativity threshold” – who are quicker to become upset over negative interactions – have better conflict resolution and overall higher rates of marital happiness.

It is not whether negative interactions occur that is important, rather that negative interactions are faced head on when they happen with each partner maintaining a positive perception of their relationship, rather than putting conflicts away until they turn from a mild drizzle to a hurricane of emotion and hurt.

This concept can be explained by John Gottman’s “Emotional Bank Account” theory. In my personal finances I have to deposit more than I withdraw in order to stay out of the red. If I deposit $100, I can’t expect to be able to withdraw $200 from my account. Our relationships, Gottman has found, are the same. The more positive interactions you deposit into your relationships, the less of a deficit is created when you have a negative interaction. If your relationship has more negative than positive interactions, your emotional bank account goes into the danger zone and becomes harder to repair. You’ve put yourself and your relationship into emotional debt.

What can we do to avoid getting into that red zone? Here are 5 ways Gottman suggests to improve any marriage.

  1. Seek help early

    Many couples who are seeking therapy for relationship problems do so in a final attempt to try and save their marriage. Unfortunately, that means that there are years of damage to try and repair. By being willing to seek professional help (read: NOT just venting to friends or in-laws), you can avoid years of hurt and work to strengthen your marriage before all feels lost.

  2. Edit yourself.

    We ALL have bad feelings and thoughts sometimes, but that doesn’t mean they need to be verbalized. Keeping in mind what is necessary to say and what is just hurtful can help limit serious damage when in conflict.

  3. Soften your “start up.”

    Along with not saying every bad thought you’re having, approaching conflict with kinder, less harsh words and phrases can help your partner not be automatically on the defensive. Replacing “You completely humiliated me in front of our friends tonight!” with, “I felt a little picked on and isolated when you made that comment earlier, can we talk about that?” can set a better emotional tone for a helpful discussion rather than an attacking debate.  

  4. Have high standards.

    Successful couples are those who refuse to accept hurtful behavior from one another. Just as Fry explained, having a lower tolerance for negative interactions means that issues get resolved and are unable to fester or grow.

  5. Focus on the positives

    For every negative interaction couples have with one another, there needs to be at least five positive ones to balance it out. This keeps your love bank account full and secure for any unexpected withdraws that happen.

So do Cinderella and her Prince Charming discuss the negative parts of life? Probably. If they weren’t able to perceive each other positively or tackle tricky topics when they arose, it wouldn’t be a fairytale ending.  

For more tips on building your happily ever after, take the RELATE assessment today.


Written by: Melece, Master’s Student in Marriage and Family Therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.


Leave a Reply