Posted by: faithful | June 19, 2008

making marriage work

At the University of Seattle psychologist John Gottman (click to find his book at Amazon. com) has been researching the ingredients that make for successful marriage and successful therapy of couples who are wanting to make their relationships more fulfilling.

Gottman challenges many of the myths we hear in our day to day lives:

He reminds us that research does not support the idea that neurotic conflicts bring failure in marriage.

He cautions that having common interests can mean smooth or rough sailing depending on how you treat one another when you are sharing time together.

He has found that in happy marriages couples are not keeping tabs on one another and thus the quid pro quo theory of blissful matrimony is bogus.

He warns that avoiding conflict is not an asset in a marriage, depending on the personality of the individuals involved.

He recognizes that affairs to not generally break up marriages but that failing relationship intimacy leads to affairs. (I am sure he would agree that this is not always the case.)

He especially goes after the myths about men having poor relationship skills and a need to “spread their seed.”

And finally he asserts that while men and women have differences due to gender, this does not necessitate that they live on different planets.

So what does he look for and work for in helping his couples improve their lives?

First, he is concerned about the pattern of relationship repair. He has noticed in his observation of couples that those who succeed find ways to engineer “personal space walks” to fix what is failing or has injured their marital ship.  He says that “In the strongest marriages, husband and wife share a deep sense of meaning…don’t just ‘get along’–they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together.” (source: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work)

He has noticed that couples who are successful avoid “harsh startups.”  This is about how spouses bring up issues, approach each other in problem solving.  Contempt can be found in a soft but cunning voice or in a loud abrasive and accusatory challenge.  It is the negativity and hostility factor that makes for the difference.

He goes on to identify The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocolypse:

1. Relating by criticizing rather than complaining.  Complaints address issues and problems while criticism addresses global characteristics and escalate the conflict.

2. Contempt, demonstrated by frequent sarcasm and cynicism, of expression is a marriage killer.  He says, “Contempt is fueld by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner.”  The cousin of contempt, he says, is belligerence: aggressive anger that contains a threat or provocation.

3. Defensiveness, he says, maintains these first two characteristics of marital failure.  By focusing on the partner’s faults or avoiding responsibility for relationship sabotage, the power struggle then escalates and solutions do not develop.

4. Finally, he posits that Stonewalling or tuning out is the ultimate killer, often arriving later on the marital scene, as hope begins to falter or is lost in the negative spiral of unsuccessful problem solutions.

He recognizes that a spouse will begin to stonewall as a protection agaisnt feeling overwhelmed or flooded by angry and painful emotions.

All of these factors are conveyed and expressed through body language that reveals an alarmed somatic reaction to the marital stress: increased adrenaline, fight or flight reactions, mounting blood pressure, and other significant hormonal changes:  Selye’s stress cycle.

These problems, as they become chronic in a failing marriage, make it much more difficult for repair attempts to succeed. He observes that “The more repair attempts fail, the more these couples keep trying.”  As the marriage continues bad memories begin to replace the dreams, high hopes and expectations that held the marriage together in the first place.  History gets rewritten, he says, and distorted memories begin to intensify.

Gottman’s Principles for Rebuilding Marital Relationship Include:

1. Enhancing Love Maps: Sharing and Getting to Know Your Partner Again
2. Nurturing Fondness and Admiration: Fanning the Flames of Appreciation
3. Turning Toward Instead of Away From Each Other: Learning How to Have Stress Reducing Conversations
4. Letting Your Partner Influence You: Practicing Emotional Intelligence and Yielding
5. Solving Solvable Problems and Being Tolerant of One Another’s Faults
6. Overcoming Gridlock by

  • Finding Common Ground
  • Defining Areas of Flexibility 
  • Establishing Temporary Compromises 
  • Addressing Short-Term Needs or Wishes

He encourages the development and maintenance of family rituals:  having meals together; attending reunions and religious services; having family outings; establishing repetitive events that express the unique interests or goals of members of the family, such as attending sports events or hiking.

Photobooks, memory books, and or photo collections can also cement marital and family relationships and help form a symbolic and expressive symbolic expression of a couples’ life journey.




  1. I like Gottman’s work a lot and your post is really well written. Thank you so much.

    I have also written about his stuff in a different context on my sites

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