The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert

by John M. Gottman, Nan Silver

John Gottman revolutionized the study of marriage by observing the habits of married couples in his “Love Lab” in Seattle. By using scientific approaches and procedures and recording every detail of the observations of married couples in this lab over the course of many years, Gottman identified several key principles for a long-lasting relationship.

Summary Notes

Inside the Seattle Love Lab: The Truth About Happy Marriages

“One of the saddest reasons a marriage dies is that neither spouse recognizes its value until it’s too late.”

Dr. Gottman can predict in as little as five minutes if a marriage will last as he observes from his “Love Lab” in Seattle, Washington. These predictions are not based on intuitions or preconceived notions about what marriage “should be.” These predictions are made from data accumulated over years of study. What makes marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happy marriages are emotionally intelligent marriages. The more emotionally intelligent a couple, the better they understand, honor, and respect each other. There are many exceptional reasons to work to save your marriage, including a better immune system and overall longevity. People who stay married live four years longer than people who don’t. Most marriage therapy fails because of many culturally accepted myths about what makes a marriage work. It’s more than just learning to communicate better! By learning to follow the several principles that Gottman has observed, a couple can make their marriage last.

How I Predict Divorce

“Couples who are deeply entrenched in a negative view of their spouse and their marriage often rewrite their past.”

Anger and argument between a husband and wife don’t predict a marital meltdown. It’s the way they argue that may predict a future breakup.

There are six common observable signs that can predict future issues.

The First Sign: Harsh Start-Up

If a discussion between spouses begins with negative accusatory remarks, or critical, sarcastic, or derisive comments—any form of contempt—this is a “harsh start-up” and will inevitably end on a negative note.

The Four Horsemen

As a conversation unfolds, there are four specific types of negative interactions that are lethal to a relationship. They are called “The Four Horsemen”. They are:

  • Criticism - This is different from a complaint. A complaint addresses a specific action at which your spouse has failed, while criticism is any negative words about your mate’s character and personality. (i.e., Complaint: “I’m angry you didn’t sweep the floor.” Criticism: “You’re so lazy. You didn’t even bother to sweep the floor.”)
  • Contempt - Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. Also, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust.
  • Defensiveness - Defensiveness is a way of blaming your partner. Instead of listening to a complaint or your spouse’s feelings, you are in effect saying, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” When you take a defensive position, you are basically telling your partner you refuse to understand or acknowledge their side of an issue.
  • Stonewalling - Often when discussions begin with a harsh start-up or descend into criticism and contempt, one partner will tune out. This is stonewalling. It is a complete shutdown and is most often observed in men.

The Third Sign: Flooding

Flooding means that your spouse’s negativity—whether in the guise of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness—is so overwhelming and so sudden that it leaves you shell-shocked. All you can think about is protecting yourself from the turbulence. This leads to a disengagement from the relationship.

The Fourth Sign: Body Language

Flooding leads to severe emotional distress that engages physical manifestations such as increased heart rate, sweating, etc. When your body goes into overdrive during an argument, it is responding to a very primitive alarm system. Body language signals these alarms, and the response is automatic. The human body has not refined its fear reactions. Whether you are facing a saber-toothed tiger or an angry spouse, the body reacts the same way. It is a biological fact that men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than their wives.

The Fifth Sign: Failed Repair Attempts

Repair attempts save marriages because they decrease the emotional tension between spouses and also lower the overall stress level. This prevents your heart from racing and feeling flooded. When a spouse attempts to make a repair during an argument or following one, and it is rebuffed, ignored, or unrecognized, it leaves the issue unresolved. This leads to further tension and flooding.

The Sixth Sign: Bad Memories

When a relationship becomes negative, it’s not only the couple’s present and future life together that are put at risk. Their past is put in danger as well because many couples will rewrite past experiences in their mind, turning them negative. In happy marriages, couples tend to look back on their early days together fondly. But when marriage is not going well, history gets rewritten for the worse. The focus tends to fall on negative past experiences and any positive past experiences get overrun.

Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps

“Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s worlds.”

Deep knowledge of your partner is incredibly important in a marriage. The term “love map” is Dr. Gottman’s term for a richly detailed knowledge of all of your partner’s details. It is the part of the brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life. Without this deep knowledge of your spouse, it is like not having a map; when the marriage gets difficult, it’s easy to lose your way.

Actions to take

Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

“Fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance.”

A fondness and admiration system means that a couple has a fundamental sense that their spouse is worthy of being respected and liked. Even in a marriage on the brink of collapse, a couple that still has a functioning fondness and admiration system has a salvageable marriage. Although happily married couples may be distracted at times by their partner’s personality flaws, they still feel that the person they married is worthy of honor and respect. Fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt. If you maintain a sense of respect for your spouse, you are less likely to act disgusted with them when you argue or disagree.

Actions to take

Principle 3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

“Hollywood has dramatically distorted our notions of romance and what makes passion burn.”

What might seem like insignificant or boring chitchat between couples is actually a pretty good sign that marriage will last. What’s happening in these brief, little exchanges is that couples are connecting. They are turning towards each other. In couples who go on to divorce or live together unhappily, such small moments of connection are rare. In marriage, people periodically make what are called “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. People either turn towards each other after these bids or they turn away. Turning towards each other is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life. Couples who turn towards each other remain emotionally engaged. Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice. Paying attention to these small bids, or mundane moments, can increase your marriage’s stability and also its ongoing sense of romance.

Actions to take

Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You

“Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance his marriage will self-destruct.”

In a long-term study of 130 couples, the Gottman Institute found that men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce. The point of the chapter is not to single out the men, but to emphasize that honor and respect is important in a marriage. Data from the studies suggest that most women already consider their husbands’ input in decision-making, but culturally many men struggle to share power in a marriage. The happiest and most stable marriages are those where husbands and wives do not resist power-sharing. When couples disagree, it is imperative that both actively search for common ground. The wives of men who accept their influence are far less likely to be harsh with their husbands when broaching a difficult marital topic.

Actions to take

The Two Kinds of Marital Conflict

“Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.”

All marital conflicts, ranging from mundane annoyances to all-out wars, really fall into one of two categories. Either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, unresolvable problems. Once you can define your various disagreements as either one or the other, you’ll be able to customize your coping strategies. When choosing a long-term partner, you will be invariably choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you will be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or thirty years. One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful or intense than perpetual problems. When you argue over a solvable problem, your focus is on a particular problem that is temporary. In solvable problems, it is important to set aside tension or blame and work together creatively to resolve the issue. For perpetual problems, it is important to identify the underlying issue at the core of the argument. It is helpful to develop a willingness to explore hidden issues that are creating gridlock from perpetual problems. The basis for coping effectively with either kind of problem is the same: communicating basic acceptance of your partner. If either or both of you feel judged, misunderstood, or rejected by the other, you will not be able to manage the problems in your marriage.

Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems

“You don’t have to agree with everything your spouse says or believes, but you have to be honestly open to considering his or her position.”

When a husband and a wife respect each other and are open to each other’s point of view, they have a good basis for resolving any differences that arise. By observing and studying what successful couples do to resolve conflicts, Gottman has developed a five-step model for resolving conflict in a loving relationship. The fifth principle, “Solve Your Solvable Problems,” entails the following steps:

  1. Soften your start-up.
    A harsh start-up in a difficult conversation usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. A soft start-up doesn’t necessarily have to be diplomatic, it just has to be devoid of criticism and contempt. Expressing emotion is okay. Softening the start-up is crucial to resolving conflicts because research finds that discussions invariably end on the same note they begin.

  2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts.
    When your discussion starts on the wrong foot, or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent disaster if you know how to stop. These brakes are called repair attempts. Learning to recognize when to repair, or when your spouse is attempting to repair, is a skill that requires practice and a desire to improve your emotional intelligence. Try making “I” statements like, “I’m getting upset. Can we take a break?” or “I feel blamed. Can you rephrase that?” Learn to say that you’re sorry, and express appreciation for your partner’s willingness to listen and get through a difficult talk. The key is to repair quickly and often.

  3. Soothe yourself and each other.
    Soothing your partner is of enormous benefit to a marriage because it’s really a form of reverse conditioning. In other words, if you frequently have the experience of being calmed by your spouse, you will stop seeing your partner as a trigger of stress in your life. Try to recognize when you or your spouse is flooded and take immediate steps to relax, take a break, or soothe the situation. Breaks should last at least twenty minutes. You won’t be able to solve any issue as long as either party is upset.

  4. Compromise.
    The only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise. Remember that the fourth principle of marriage is “accepting influence.” This means that you cannot have a closed mind to your spouse’s opinions or desires. Try to find common ground. Win-win situations can be found by being understanding and creative in finding solutions together.

  5. Be tolerant of each other’s faults.
    Until you accept your partner’s flaws and foibles, you will not be able to compromise successfully. Too often, a marriage gets bogged down in “if only”s. “If only your spouse were taller, richer, smarter, neater, or sexier, all your problems would vanish.” You know this is not true. So be gentle and kind to your partner. Remember your own flaws and imperfections can make you difficult as well. So give each other a break.

Coping With Typical Solvable Problems

“Scheduling formal griping sessions can prevent the spillover of everyday stress into your marriage.”

Work stress, in-laws, money, sex, housework, children, or a new baby: these are the most typical areas of marital conflict. Even in happy, stable marriages, these issues are perennial. When there is conflict in one of these common areas, usually it’s because each spouse has different ideas about these things. Since these topics come up frequently, it can be beneficial to discuss these difficult and frequent conflicts and develop strategies that work for both of you. Here are the six hot spot issues that most marriages face: 

  • Stress. Make your marriage a place of peace. Try building a time to unwind in your daily schedule. Make it a ritual for both of you.

  • Relations With In-Laws. Establish a sense of “we-ness,” or solidarity, between husband and wife. Let others know that your spouse comes first.

  • Money. Balance the freedom and empowerment money represents with the security and trust it also symbolizes. What’s most important in your marriage is that you work as a team on financial issues and that you express your concerns, needs, and fantasies to each other before coming up with a plan. Make sure you come up with a budget that doesn’t force either one of you to become a martyr. This will only build up resentment. You’ll each need to be firm about items that you consider non-negotiable.

  • Sex. Your task is to have a fundamental appreciation and acceptance of each other. No other area of a couple’s life offers more potential for embarrassment, hurt, and rejection than sex. Learn to talk to each other about sex in a way that lets you both feel safe. That means learning the right way to ask for what you want. The key to talking about sex is to be gentle.

  • Housework. Create a sense of fairness and teamwork. Try itemizing exactly who does what chore. Start by discussing which tasks each person is easily willing to do. Then move on to the more troublesome chores. Come up with creative solutions. Don’t avoid it. It will only make it worse. Be clear. Do what you say you’ll do.

  • Becoming Parents. Expand your sense of “we-ness” to include your children. Focus on your marital friendship. Don’t exclude dad from baby care, they need that bonding time. It’s imperative that you carve out time for the two of you away from the children. Be sensitive to dad’s needs; he can feel left out. Give mom a break, she can get overwhelmed and engulfed.

Principle 6: Overcome Gridlock

“Gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other.”

Gridlock is another term for the perpetual problems you can’t seem to solve. The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue. To navigate your way out of gridlock, you first have to understand its cause. Underlying the gridlock is usually a dream, such as hopes, aspirations, or wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life. Happy couples understand that helping each other realize their dreams is one of the goals of marriage. One way to approach unlocking gridlock is to try to uncover the dream or hidden desire that is causing it. This starts a dialogue that can begin to approach the real underlying issue.

Actions to take

Principle 7: Create Shared Meaning

“A culture can also be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives.”

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together. Usually, when we think of culture, we think in terms of large ethnic groups, or even countries where particular customs prevail. But culture can be created by a couple. In essence, each couple and each family create its own microculture. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is much less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock. The more shared meaning you can find in your marriage, the deeper, richer, and more rewarding your relationship will be. Displaying symbols (pictures, mementos, or objects) around the home and establishing rituals (meals together, family vacations, weekly dates, daily prayer, or meditation) are ways to develop a culture for your relationship and family.

Actions to take

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