The seven principles for making marriage work: a practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert

by John Gottman

Posted on
relationships marriage

Better communication doesn’t really solve marriage problems. It has a low success rate, and that makes sense because there are plenty of marriages that yell and dispute. Disputation is not a sign of an unhealthy marriage. You’d have to be really magnanimous to take criticism about you, even if presented as softly as possible.

Personality does not make a marriage incompatible. People can be friends but have very distinct personalities. Handle each other’s strange side with caring and respect, as you would a friend.

Keeping score indicates a problem.

Honesty is not always the best policy.

Some marriages do well because each has an individual outlet for anger (watching sports or going to the mall) and they never need to deal with their disagreements.

Affairs are usually a symptom, and are usually about seeking the emotional relationships a marriage is supposed to offer.

Men are not any more likely to have affairs due to biological reasons, but because of work. But that has changed now because of women entering the workforce.

friendship permalink

For both men and women, satisfaction in the sexual and emotional relationship comes about 70% from friendship in marriage, according to studies. So it’s not that men and women need different things.

Friendship is a mutual respect for and desire to be with someone. Be her friend to be her husband! That kind of respect causes positive sentiment override, which allows you to overlook things that could be taken poorly.

Couples establish a set point of trust. If that’s low, disagreements can quickly get out of hand. If it’s high, it helps when there’s tension. Repair attempts can break up tension, when you have high trust.

Build a sense of purpose into your lives together.

Most marital arguments cannot be resolved, because they’re based on fundamental differences in values. You can’t use conflict resolution to solve it, but you can learn to live with it by loving and respecting each other.

Bonnie notes that my parents have an aura of sincere admiration and respect. I’ve noticed that Hannah and Cameron really sincerely enjoy each other’s company.

the four horsemen permalink

The way you argue indicates problems, not the fact that you argue. A harsh setup is bad news for an argument.

These “four horsemen” are what constitute a conversation going south in Gottman’s mind:

  • criticism
  • contempt
  • defensiveness
  • stonewalling

Criticism is global, whereas complaints are specific. Contempt conveys disgust. Contempt is an accusation of a moral deficiency.

Defensiveness is a way of blaming the other, even though it may not look like that.

the process leading to the end of a marriage permalink

Emotionally distancing yourself from your spouse is always bad, no matter what type of relationship you want to have. Repair attempts are important. The four horsemen will show up at times, but failed repair attempts are double bad.

Bad memories are a bad sign too. People rewrite their past with negative feelings attached, or forget it entirely. This is often a last sign before a divorce or something like that.

The end: parallel lives, loneliness, unwillingness to work it out.

love map permalink

The key is not handling disagreements, but strengthening the friendship that’s around when you’re not arguing. Pay attention to the details of the other’s life. Names of friends, details of interests, etc. Be able to order her salad or record her favorite TV show. Know each other’s goals.

Having a first child can be so disruptive when you don’t truly understand each other’s needs and interests.

fondness and admiration permalink

You stay connected through the grind of every day stuff. Say nice things every time. Turn toward each other by helping, chatting, offering, etc.

Talking at the end of the day is an important way to help each other cope with the stress that comes from other parts of the day. But the goal needs to be to decompress, not to solve problems, whether it’s at dinner or not. Use active listening and be supportive. Don’t talk about marital disputes.

Giving advice suggests that an issue isn’t as hard as they’re making it out to be.

let your partner influence you permalink

Take her feelings and opinions into account. Search for common ground when there’s a disagreement.

“Because he worries about his influence, he won’t have much.”

When there’s a disagreement, we need to find something that the other person wants that we can find common ground on. In cases where there seems to be no common ground, it’s because there is a hidden perpetual problem (philosophical) that needs to be figured out.

the way you treat each other permalink

Many times we become impatient with our spouses in a way that we’d never treat guests or anyone else.

Gottman thinks that the advice we all give about “balancing” family and relationship is a false dichotomy. Just be in it together; it’s ok if the kids are all you talk about sometimes.

Women are nurturing, and men are playful, generally. So it’s good to have each as involved as the other.

overcoming gridlock permalink

Marriage is about helping each other accomplish your dreams. There’s no one right answer to conflicts of dreams, but it’s important to support the dreams of both. When you reach gridlock, look for the hidden dreams behind it. A sign of a hidden dream is that you see it all as the other person’s problem. Be sure to be friends first before trying to resolve these gridlocked differences.

There are three levels of support for a spouse’s dream, and they are all valuable:

  1. emotionally supportive
  2. physically supportive (like with finances, etc.)
  3. joining in on the dream