Book Summary

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

12 minutes read

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Inside the Seattle Love Lab: The Truth About Happy Marriages

Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. Rather than creating a climate of disagreement and resistance, they embrace each other’s needs.

The more emotionally intelligent a couple—the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage—the more likely that they will indeed live happily ever after.

An unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35 percent and even shorten your life by an average of four to eight years.

People who are happily married live longer, healthier lives than either divorced people or those who are unhappily married.

Even happily married couples can have screaming matches—loud arguments don’t necessarily harm a marriage.

What Does Make Marriage Work?

At the heart of the Seven Principles approach is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately—they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but through small gestures day in and day out.

Once your marriage gets “set” at a high degree of positivity, it will take far more negativity to harm your relationship than if your “set point” were lower. And if your relationship becomes overwhelmingly negative, it will be more difficult to repair.

In the strongest marriages, husband and wife share a deep sense of meaning. They don’t just “get along”—they also support each other’s hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together.

How I Predict Divorce

The most obvious indicator that this discussion (and this marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. “hen a discussion leads off this way—with criticism and/or sarcasm, which is a form of contempt—it has begun with a “harsh start-up.

The research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh start-up, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are a lot of attempts to “make nice” in between.

Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that I call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Horseman 1: Criticism. You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between complaint and criticism. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or event. In contrast, a criticism is global and expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality.

Horseman 2: Contempt. The second horseman arises from a sense of superiority over one’s partner. It is a form of disrespect.

Horseman 3: Defensiveness. Defensiveness in all its guises just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out.”

Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed, a sensation we call flooding. It occurs when your spouse’s negativity is so intense and sudden that it leaves you shell-shocked. You feel so defenseless against this sniper attack that you learn to do anything to avoid a replay. The more often you feel flooded by your spouse’s criticism or contempt, the more hypervigilant you are for cues that your spouse is about to “blow” again.

When your body goes into overdrive during an argument, it is responding to a very primitive alarm system we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. All those distressful reactions, like a pounding heart and sweating, occur because on a fundamental level your body perceives your current situation as dangerous.

Repair attempts, as I described on this page, are efforts the couple makes (“Let’s take a break,” “Wait, I need to calm down”) to de-escalate the tension during a touchy discussion—to put on the brakes so that they can prevent flooding.

Repair attempts save marriages not just because they decrease emotional tension between spouses, but because by lowering the stress level they also prevent your heart from racing and making you feel flooded. When the four horsemen rule a couple’s communication, repair attempts often don’t even get noticed. Especially when you’re feeling flooded, you’re not able to hear a verbal white flag.

Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps

Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. I call this having a richly detailed love map—my term for that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life. Another way of saying this is that these couples have made plenty of cognitive room for their marriage.

Couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s world are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict.

Getting to know your spouse better and sharing your inner self with your partner is an ongoing process. In fact, it’s a lifelong process.

Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

94 percent of the time, couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history and their partner’s character are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.

By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities—even as you grapple with each other’s flaws—you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating. The simple reason is that 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 him or her when you disagree. So fondness and admiration prevent you from being trounced by the four horsemen.

Without the fundamental belief that your spouse is worthy of honor and respect, where is the basis for any kind of rewarding relationship?

When you acknowledge and openly discuss positive aspects of your partner and your marriage, your bond is strengthened. This makes it much easier to address the problem areas in your marriage and initiate positive changes.

Cherishing is a habit of mind in which, when you are separated during the course of the day, you maximize thoughts of your partner’s positive qualities and minimize thoughts of negative ones.

Principle 3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

In marriage, couples are always making what I call “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, humor, or support. The partner responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life.

Each time partners turn toward each other, they are funding what I’ve come to call their emotional bank account. They are building up savings that, like money in the bank, can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re faced with a major life stress or conflict.

The first step in turning toward each other more is simply to be aware of how crucial these mini-moments are, not only to your marriage’s trust level but to its ongoing sense of romance.

So before you reply defensively to your partner, pause for a moment and search for a bid underneath your partner’s harsh words. Then, focus on the bid, not the delivery.

Happy couples live by the credo “When you are in pain, the world stops and I listen.”

Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You

The wives of men who accept their influence are far less likely to be harsh with their husbands when broaching a difficult marital topic. This increases the odds their marriage will thrive.

A willingness to share power and to respect the other person’s view is a prerequisite for compromising. For that reason, becoming more adept at accepting influence will especially help you better cope with marital conflict.

The Two Kinds of Marital Conflict

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, which means they will be a part of your lives forever in some form or another.

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

If you and your spouse are entrenched in conflict, it may not be obvious which of the two types of disagreement you’re having—gridlocked or solvable. One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones. That’s because when you argue over a solvable problem, your focus is only on a particular dilemma or situation. There is no underlying conflict that’s fueling your dispute.

Negative emotions hold important information about how to love each other better. It takes a lot of understanding and proficiency in attunement to be able to really hear what your partner is saying when he or she is upset.

Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems

A model for resolving conflict in a loving relationship:

  1. Soften your start-up.
  2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts.
  3. Soothe yourself and each other.
  4. Compromise.
  5. Process any grievances so that they don’t linger.

Like it or not, compromise is the only way to solve marital problems. In an intimate, loving relationship, it just doesn’t work for either of you to get things all your way, even if you’re convinced that you’re right. This approach would create such inequity and unfairness that the marriage would suffer.

Coping with Typical Solvable Problems

If your partner is complaining that you seem more focused on your social-media profile than your marital status, that’s an issue you need to take seriously, even if you disagree. I recommend that all couples establish rules of etiquette that work for them. At the very least, such rules ought to include a ban on texting, checking e-mail, or other “cyber crimes” during mealtime, date night, or when either of you needs to talk.

Acknowledge that at the end of a long, stressful day you may need time to yourselves to decompress before interacting with each other. If you are feeling suddenly outraged by something your spouse did, realize that the incident may be overblown in your mind because you’re feeling so tense.

One of the basic tasks of a marriage is to establish a sense of “we-ness” between husband and wife. So the husband must let his mother know that his wife does indeed come first. He is a husband, then a son.

What is the key to sexual satisfaction in a long-term relationship? In our study of couples with young children (a high-stress time in most marriages), we found that those whose sex lives were good to great made sex a priority rather than considering it the last obligation on a long to-do list. These couples talked about their sex life, ensured they had one-on-one time together, and put the relationship first, despite the competing demands of work and children.

The goal of sex in a long-term relationship is to have fun, heighten closeness, and feel valued and accepted in this very tender area of your marriage.

Principle 6: Overcome Gridlock

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand that no matter how seemingly insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect.

The happy couples are aware of each other’s dreams and consider helping each other realize them to be one of the goals of marriage.

When either spouse isn’t aware of or doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of supporting his or her partner’s dreams, gridlock is almost inevitable.

Keep working on your unresolvable conflicts. Couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.

Principle 7: Create Shared Meaning

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 symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you and that lead you to understand who you are as a family.

The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is much less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

A crucial goal of any marriage, therefore, is to create an atmosphere that encourages each person to talk honestly about his or her convictions. The more you speak candidly and respectfully with each other, the more likely there is to be a blending of your sense of meaning.

Four critical mainstays of shared meaning. When couples build these together, they enrich their relationship and family life:

  1. Rituals of connection. Creating rituals in your marriage (and with your children) can be a powerful antidote to this tendency to disconnect. A ritual is a structured event or routine that you each enjoy and depend on and that both reflects and reinforces your sense of togetherness.
  2. Support for each other's roles. Your marriage will feel more profound to the degree that your expectations of each other—what you feel your partner’s place in your family ought to be—are similar.
  3. Shared goals. Not only will you increase the intimacy of your marriage by sharing your deepest objectives with your spouse, but to the extent that you work together to achieve shared goals, they can be a path toward making your union even richer.
  4. Shared values and symbols. These are philosophical tenets that guide how you wish to conduct your lives.