What makes marriage work

I must admit that for a long time I refused to read Gotman’s book; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage work. It sounded like an article the you page through quickly while waiting for the checkout line to move through in the supermarket, before surreptitiously stuffing the glossy magazine back and unloading your groceries on the belt.

Well, I was wrong.

John Gottman has revolutionized the study of marriage by using rigorous scientific procedures to observe the habits of married couples.  Over many years he interviewed couples and videotaped their interactions. He used physiological measures to record their stress levels during these interactions. His study is based not only on couples that came to therapy which would not be a representative sample, but randomly selected couples as well. He observed them right after marriage and could predict with a large degree of success, who would stay together and who would not.

He derived some simple but effective rules for a successful marriage. When put down on paper, they seem obvious and deceptively simple, but he has distilled down behaviors that need to be focused on to insure a happy marriage.

1. Get to know your partner really well. Know the details of their life . Everything from their work situation, taste in food and books, and secret dreams. It sounds trivial. but sometimes people live together and are not really interested in their partner’s work situation, preferences and taste. Over the years this creates a distance between them.

2. Nurture your fondness and admiration. There is this romantic notion that you either feel love towards someone, or you do not, and there is nothing you can do about it.  This is not exactly right. We can concentrate on the positive qualities of our partner, or on those qualities or habits that irritate us. We have a choice here. happy couples respect each other. When this basic ingredient is lacking, Gottman says that the marriage cannot be saved.

3. In times of hardship turn towards each other instead of away., it is very important to stay in touch and communicate, even if the hardship stems from the relationship itself.

4. Acknowledging your partner’s small moments in life and orienting yourself towards them will maintain that necessary connection that is vital for the relationship.

5. Let your partner influence you:

“Happy couples work as a team. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you isn’t about having one person control the others; it’s about mutual respect  … It is important to maintain your own identity in a relationship, but it is equally important to yield to your partner and give in. If both partners allow one another this influence, then they will learn to respect one another on a deeper level.”

This principle is directed towards men in a straight relationship. Women tend naturally to listen and allow themselves to be influenced by the men in their life. Men tend not to. Research shows over and over again that those  men who listen to their wives, have better relationship, and many times other advantages.

Gottman got criticized over this principle more than for any other that he formulated, because it sounds so moralistic. But again, research backed his principle. Actually, Daniel Kahenman, the Nobel laurette,  showed in his research that women tend to be better investors because they are not as convinced as men that they know everything and hence tend to lose less money in the market.

6. Create shared meaning – family rituals.  “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 — a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become,” Gottman says.

7. The last two principles sound a bit like the serenity prayer: Learn the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems. Learn to cope better with the first one, and learn to live with the later – with all the idiosyncrasies of your spouse.

Gottman warns us that we should avoid the worst types of communication: contempt, and stone walling.

Some myths that Gottman debunks:

1. “Affairs are the root of many divorces”.  I completely agree . In my professional experience, affairs are a symptom of something that did not work well in the marriage prior to the affair. I have seen couples that were able to work their issues out in therapy after an affair, and arrived at a much better place in their relationship than before the affair.

2.” It is all about communication.” Well, it is not. Many emotionally intelligent couples learn to manage their life without having a long discussion about their relationships.

3. “Arguments are bad”. Not really. According to his research, it depends on the kind of argument. If it does not involve humiliation and contempt, there is nothing wrong with arguing. Actually, there is evidence that couples that tend to fight a lot have a better sex life than couples that do not.

Adapted from Gottman, J: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage work. Crown publishers, 1999, New York.