A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
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John Gottman’s Perspective
John M. Gottman is an American psychological researcher and clinician who did extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability. He is also an award-winning speaker, author and professor emeritus in psychology. Gottman is the founder and director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute and a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His previous books include The Heart of Parenting and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is based on the findings that Gottman obtained from his Love Lab. Through developing this lab, he discovered he could predict with 91% accuracy which marriages will succeed and which will fail. He could predict this after watching how couples spoke and related. Sometimes, he could accurately predict their success within 5 minutes. In this book, these findings are condensed into seven principles that can guide you toward a harmonious and long-lasting relationship. The book also attempts to debunk numerous myths about marriages and why they fail.
The Truth About Happy Marriages
The first chapter of the book introduces John Gottman’s concept of a “Love Lab.” The lab helped Gottman decipher between marriages that will succeed and those that will fail. On top of this, the lab also highlighted that couples therapy would not work in the long term. The reason for couples therapy being ineffective is that the essential ingredients are not tapped into. For example, in emotionally intelligent marriages, a dynamic is established where negative thoughts and feelings are kept from overwhelming the positive ones. Couples therapy does not aim to improve emotional intelligence.
How to Predict Divorce
When the studied couples were in Gottman’s “Love Lab,” he asked them to resolve a conflict. Findings showed it was not whether they argued but how they argued that made the difference. Gottman offers four signs within arguments that are possible signs of potential relational problems/divorce. He calls these four signs the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
- Criticism – Criticism is usually the first of the horsemen to appear within a marriage. Complaints will inevitably arise and mistakes will happen like forgotten anniversaries or arguments about chores. That said, once these mistakes become criticisms, the beginnings of a doomed marriage start to appear. For instance, it’s normal to complain about your partner for forgetting to do the dishes. But that complaint turns to criticism when you find yourself saying things like, “You forgot to do the dishes again? You’re so lazy!”
- Contempt – If criticism is left untreated, it can turn into contempt. Contempt involves mocking behavior and expressions of disgust designed to make your spouse feel useless or small.
- Defensiveness – If your partner is consistently showing you contempt, defensiveness can arise. If a criticizing partner scoffs at your spending habits, you may reply, “I don’t spend that much! I know many people who spend more than I do.” This defensiveness won’t solve any problems and will eventually turn into the fourth horseman.
- Stonewalling – Stonewalling is when a partner has received so much criticism and contempt that they detach themselves from the conversation. Subsequently, they respond with phrases like “uh-huh” or “sure.” They will even avoid face-to-face interaction to avoid their partner.
You should be looking out for these signs and seeking proper help if you notice them. These horsemen may be signs that your marriage is struggling, but marriages that seem doomed can still be revived.
The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work
Principle One – Enhance Your Love Map
“Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in closed energy systems things tend to run down and get less orderly, the same seems to be true of closed relationships like marriages. My guess is that if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time. To maintain a balanced emotional ecology you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.” – John Gottman
Couples that know everything about the other person have what Gottman considers a detailed love map. A road map tells you how to get to your destination, a love map shows you how to know and love your partner. The more detailed the map, the stronger the love.
The author tells us the story of Rory and Lisa, a couple who became distant from each other over the years. Rory, a pediatrician, ran an intensive care unit for babies. He had several stresses that came with his work. He would even stay overnight at the hospital, making for a strong work-life but a rocky home life. Rory spent so little time at home that he didn’t even know the family dog’s name. His love map was sparse and he was missing critical details that would strengthen his home life and marriage.
Couples who take the time to establish a detailed love map are much better prepared for stress and conflict when they arise. For instance, a new baby can drastically change the dynamic of a relationship and can change a partner’s aspirations and life philosophies. Gottman explains that studies suggest 67 percent of couples experience dissatisfaction in their relationships after the arrival of a new baby. The remaining 33% had detailed love maps that prevented them from losing their way. The lesson here is that the more you know and understand about your spouse, the easier it is to stay connected despite life’s challenges.
It’s also important to remember that love maps never stay the same. Just as a baby can change the relationship’s dynamic, a baby can also alter a partner’s love map. Take the example of Maggie and Ken, who quickly jumped into marriage and started a family. Despite their brief relationship, they understood the ins and outs of one another: their fears, hopes and dreams. At the time of their marriage, Maggie was dedicated to her career as a computer scientist. Once Maggie gave birth to her daughter, she put aside her career to stay home and take care of her child. With new priorities, Maggie’s love map changed and Ken had to realign his own to stay on the same path as Maggie.
Principle Two – Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
“I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.” – John Gottman
Gottman provides the examples of Rory and Lisa again to explain how you can nurture your fondness and admiration. Due to their struggles, Rory and Lisa decided to see a counselor. While they thought all hope was lost, they were then asked to recall the early moments of their relationship. This exercise made them discover a glimmer of hope as they realized they still had some fondness and admiration for one another.
If a couple can look past their struggles and still speak fondly of early memories, the relationship is still salvageable. If the couple’s memories are negative and distorted, then the marriage needs some help. With Rory, the key to making the relationship thrive was to figure out how to regain his past feelings. So, he changed his work schedule, trained someone to assist him at the hospital and made sure he was home for dinner nightly.
Fondness and admiration are fragile. That said, if you can remind yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities you can keep your marriage above water. Simply assess your relationship by determining what you think of your spouse while they are away. Next, list three characteristics that describe your spouse. For each one, recall an incident that shows that characteristic in action. You can share this list with your spouse and communicate why you value those traits. You can do this as often as you like and choose different characteristics each time.
Principle Three – Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away
Instead of expensive gifts, the small, everyday mundane exchanges are what keep romance and passion alive. As humans, we often make “bids” for our partner’s attention, support, humor, and affection. Your partner will respond to these bids by either turning toward or away from you. Those who turn toward their partner tend to have higher satisfaction in their relationship and sex life. So, take a moment to pause and turn toward your partner at the end of the day when they want to unload their stresses. If you do this, you’ll likely have a more successful marriage.
Turning toward your partner can include many small gestures. Perhaps you check in on your partner during their lunch break, or give them a quick call on your way home from work. These small gestures, which can turn into a habit, should never be taken for granted. Remember these tiny moments of gratitude and appreciate your partner for taking the time to pay attention to you.
The more you turn toward each other, the more you invest in your emotional bank. As you fill up your emotional bank with positive experiences, you build a cushion to help maintain your positivity during times of conflict. If you do this, you can afford to lose more than other couples. To help build your emotional bank, keep a mental account of your emotional connections with your partner. You can certainly keep a physical account as well. Give yourself a point each time you turn towards your partner and take a point each time you turn away. It’s important to avoid turning this physical account into a competition. Instead, you should simply focus on what you can do for your marriage, not on what your spouse is or isn’t doing.
Another way to build your emotional bank is to have a conversation each evening about your day. For this to work, you both must be in the frame of mind to have this conversation. Some are ready to talk as soon as they walk in the door, while others may need to decompress after the day. Some rules include:
● Spend 20-30 minutes talking.
● Take turns throughout the conversation.
● Avoid advising unless asked.
● Be genuinely interested.
● Show that you understand.
● Take their side at all times.
● Express a united front attitude.
● Show affection.
● Validate how they feel.
Lastly, remember that marriage is a dance. Sometimes you feel drawn to your partner, while other times you need to pull away. Everyone has different needs. Some need connection and others need independence. Even if you and your partner have different needs, your marriage can work if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
Principle Four – Let Your Partner Influence You
“Thus, the critical dimension in understanding whether a marriage will work or not, becomes the extent to which the male can accept the influence of the woman he loves and become socialized in emotional communication.” – John Gottman
Marriages where partners value one another equally and allow one another to influence their decisions turn out to be happier and more successful. For instance, one study revealed that when wives express negativity, they typically de-escalate the situation. On the other hand, when men express negativity, it often escalates the situation. The reason for this difference is that men often use the “four horsemen” in an argument.
Marriages where partners accept each other’s influence see success because they understand how to compromise and share their power. Research has suggested women are more emotionally intelligent than men. This research also suggests that men who honor, respect, and recognize their wives’ intellectual strengths are more likely to listen to them.
Gottman provides a test you can use to determine the power of your relationship. Imagine you and your spouse as the only survivors after your cruise ship sinks. You find yourself on a deserted island and decide you need to survive as long as possible and make sure you are visible. Gottman provides a list of twenty-six items and describes something called the Gottman Island Survival Game:
- Two changes of clothing
- AM-FM and short-wave radio receiver
- Ten gallons of water
- Pots and pans
- Toilet paper
- Two tents
- Two sleeping bags
- Small life raft, with sail
- Sunblock lotion
- Cookstove and lantern
- Long rope
- Two walkie-talkie sender-receiver units
- Freeze-dried food for seven days
- One change of clothing
- One-fifth of whiskey
- Regional aerial maps
- Gun with six bullets
- Fifty packages of condoms
- First-aid kit with penicillin
- Oxygen tanks
Independently, look over the list and choose the ten you feel are necessary. Then, rank them in order of importance. Next, share your list with your spouse and come to an agreeable list of ten. Play an active role in this conversation and make the final decision together. Once completed, evaluate how the game went and if either of you is having trouble accepting the other’s influence. If this is the case, it’s best to acknowledge the problem and talk it over.
Principle Five – Solve Your Solvable Problems
“Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind—but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.” – John Gottman
Conflicts arise in every marriage. Marriage involves the merging of two unique individuals. So, it is unrealistic to think that spouses will agree in all situations. There are two types of conflict in every marriage: Those that can be resolved and those that are perpetual or ongoing conflicts. Sixty-nine percent of marital conflicts fall under the perpetual or ongoing category. The five main ongoing conflicts are:
● One partner wanting a baby and the other not being ready.
● One partner wants sex more frequently than the other.
● One partner rarely does the chores until the other nags them.
● One partner has a different faith than the other and both want to raise the children in their faith.
● One partner believes the other is too critical of the children.
Despite these conflicts, couples can remain happy if they have found a way that works for them to deal with the differences. Sometimes it only takes bringing up the conversation calmly and paying attention to the physical signs to overcome the conflicts within a marriage. Pay attention to your facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice and make sure that they are appropriate throughout the conversation. For instance, if your wife is in tears, don’t continue to raise your voice at her. Instead, keep calm and soften your tone.
The model for resolving conflicts simply begins with softening your startup. A soft startup allows your partner to accept your influence and the conversation is more likely to be successful. Some ways to soften your startup are:
- Avoiding blame.
- Making “I” statements, not “you.”
- Avoiding judgment.
- Being clear, polite, and appreciative.
- Laying everything out rather than storing things up inside.
The second step is to learn to make and receive repair attempts. You should learn how to stop when an argument gets out of hand. For instance, putting your arms around your wife when you see her becoming flooded with anger and emotion. Change this approach based on how your partner receives love. Some partners may perceive physical touch as an act of aggression. So, a hug may not work in all cases. It’s not enough just to repair, but to learn how to repair effectively.
Lastly, you should find common ground and accept one another’s faults. To find common ground, you should ask yourself:
- Where do we agree?
- What feelings do we have in common?
- What goals can we share?
- How should these goals be accomplished?
If a solvable problem arises, finding common ground can help you identify an agreeable compromise. That said, you will be unable to compromise if you cannot accept your partner’s faults. Avoid the “if only” and be tolerant of each other’s faults. Once you’ve mastered your problem-solving skills, you’ll see many issues within your marriage begin to resolve themselves.
Principle Six – Overcome Gridlock
Perpetual conflicts can feel like a gridlock in which neither spouse can see their partner’s point of view. You may feel caged because you and your partner have the same argument over and over again. The goal is to be open and talk about the problem, not necessarily solve it. It may be an unsolvable problem. Crucially, you can learn to live with it by communicating with one another.
To overcome a gridlock, you must both recognize that gridlock occurs when one or both of your dreams are not being respected. When you feel respected, it’s easier to compromise. Gottman offers the example of Malcolm and Shelley to explain this point. Shelley wants to get a degree, while Malcolm wants to quit his job and start his own business. Their dreams are different. Despite this, as a happy couple, they discuss their dreams and come to an agreeable compromise. Conversely, couples who don’t appreciate the importance of supporting their partner’s dreams will find themselves gridlocked with no end in sight.
“The point is that neuroses don’t have to ruin a marriage. If you can accommodate each other’s “crazy” side and handle it with caring, affection, and respect, your marriage can thrive.” – John Gottman
The culture Gottman describes in this book is the culture you and your spouse create within your marriage. Each couple and family create their own micro-culture with their own customs, rituals and traditions. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree on everything, but you must be willing to grow and develop as you create your culture.
Another example used by Gottman is that of Kevin and Helen. This couple entered marriage wanting to have independent careers, interests and social circles. Due to their independence, Helen recognized her insufficient connection with her husband. She simply felt like a roommate as they lived separate lives. So, they decided to sit down together and discuss their past. They shared their childhood experiences and their family values with one another. Through this conversation, Keven and Helen could connect on a new level and find some common ground to build their shared meaning.
To help create shared meaning, there are rituals that you must create that allow you and your spouse to connect. A simple phone call at lunch can be a small ritual that you adopt to show your spouse that you are thinking of them. Additionally, the roles we play significantly affect how we view one another and the world. You may have an idea of the role you wish to play in marriage. Despite this, you and your spouse must communicate those roles effectively to be happy. For instance, Ian and Hilary agreed the husband should be the protector and provider while the wife should take on the nurturer role. In contrast, Chloe and Evan viewed their marriage in a more egalitarian way by both supporting each other emotionally and financially.
Whatever roles and rituals you and your partner adopt, each spouse needs to agree with the chosen roles and rituals. Through compromise and communication, you can enjoy a happy, long-lasting marriage, just like many of the couples encountered throughout this book.
Final Summary and Review of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
A successful, long-lasting marriage is possible. Even if you find yourself in the throes of a doomed marriage, there are steps you can take to recover and revive your relationship to what it once was. By applying the seven principles, you can learn how to communicate effectively, make agreeable compromises and overcome solvable and perpetual conflicts. The key to a happy marriage is how you approach conflict. When you adopt the four horsemen in your arguments, your marriage is in trouble. That said, it doesn’t have to be in trouble forever. By nurturing the fondness and admiration you have for your partner, you can save your marriage. Additionally, you should let your partner influence you and communicate the roles you wish to have within your marriage. Once you adopt and practice the seven principles, you can enjoy a happy marriage prepared to last a lifetime.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work PDF, Free Audiobook, Animated Book Summary
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