The 5 to 1 Rule Applied to Relationships

I heard a brilliant thing recently concerning making mistakes in a relationship. The person I heard it from described it as “the 5 to 1 rule.”

“When you screw up, recognize that you need to do five good things for every one bad thing. So, when I do something that makes my wife mad at me – or which she considers “wrong”, I consciously focus on making sure that I do the next five things right.”

I think this simple rule can be applied to all relationships, not just the one with your spouse or significant other. As humans, we make plenty of mistakes and have plenty of failures. We also do plenty of things that annoy, distress, and anger people around us. Sometimes we realize it; sometimes we don’t.

Assume that you’ve done something, in the context of a relationship, that you’d consider to be a mistake and that you realize it, either because someone pointed it out to you or you figured it out yourself. If you consciously focus on doing “the right thing” the next five times you interact with that person, you’ll likely neutralize the impact of the mistake.

More importantly, you’ll develop a pattern of doing the right thing. This leads to all kinds of positive second order effects, like being generous, happy, and content with the people around you.

It’s especially powerful when you apply it to your spouse or significant other. I annoy my wife Amy on a regular basis. I show up late. I forget to do something she asked. I’m inconsiderate about something. But I try hard and over 18 years of being together the ratio of “good to bad” is much better than 5 to 1 in both directions. And it shows whenever one of the bad things happen, as each of us knows there is plenty of good coming next.

  • Brian Hamel

    At the rate I’m going, I won’t have time to do anything else!!

  • Five to one, baby, one in five.
    No one here gets out alive, now.
    You get yours, baby, I’ll get mine.
    Gonna make it, baby, if we try.

    “Five To One,” The Doors

  • Based on your rule, what would Tiger need to do to get to even?

    • My guess is he will never get back to even.

      • Duetoexpire

        Hell – one “Aw Shit” wipes out 100 “attaboys.”

  • Thanks Brad. Even though I rarely do something wrong (atleast in the last 15 minutes)….reading your blog post was a welcomed reminder.

  • Or you could just always try to do good things for people in all you do. As you say you’ll certainly fail at times, but if you’re focused on doing good always in all your interactions, the 5 to 1 rule will just happen naturally.

    • Yup – agree. That said, we all fail periodically – that’s just life.

  • Random factoid: the 5:1 rule is almost certainly due to marital relationships researcher John Gottman.

    Gladwell mentioned Gottman’s work briefly in “Blink”