This is one of the most popular books on how to keep your marriage alive and well. Additionally, it is packed with science! Dr. John Gottman came up with these seven principles by observing hundreds of couples in his famous “Love Lab”. Couples would come and spend a weekend in a fake apartment where the scientists would observe them from 9am to 9pm. They recorded audio, looked at their physiological data (heart rate, stress glands, etc) and took hours of video of the couple interacting together. From these video recordings and data, Dr. Gottman claims that he can predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will get divorced or not. He also knows what can save any marriage – even yours.
One of the biggest predictors of marital happiness and overall well-being is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and to understand and handle other people’s emotions. But how do you increase your emotional intelligence?
- Be aware of your emotions. Know that your emotions come from your thoughts so be aware of the thoughts that are causing your emotions.
- Learn how to manage your emotions. How do you handle anger? What can you do to soothe yourself when you are angry? Emotionally intelligent couples are able to soothe themselves and others during a conflict. They send out repair attempts to try to keep everyone calm. Repair attempts are things like saying something funny to lighten up the situation or apologizing for hurting the other person. Smart couples try to keep themselves and their partner calm when discussing a marital issue.
Why Save your Marriage?
Divorce rates are about 67% for first marriages and even more for second marriages. A happy marriage is correlated to a healthier body and longer life. There are numerous reasons why learning how to have a happy marriage is going to serve you best in the long run.
Myths about Marriage
- Communication is the most important thing. Communication is important, but it doesn’t keep a marriage together. Spouses can be super good at communicating – but say horrible things to each other. “I hate you because you are selfish, don’t pick up after yourself, and are not attractive.” That was pretty clear communication, right? Communication skills are good to learn, but those alone will not save your marriage.
- Neuroses or personality problems will ruin a marriage. We all have quirks and weird things about ourselves. It doesn’t matter what problems you have, just that you handle those problems together with care and respect.
- Common interests keep you together. That depends on how you interact when pursuing those interests. For one couple, it could bring them closer together as they laugh and have fun. For another couple, they could bicker and fight and find fault with each other the entire time they are doing the common interest.
- Avoiding conflict will ruin your marriage. People glamorize being honest and open with their partner. And honesty and openness is great, but that doesn’t mean that it is always the best thing for your marriage. Plenty of marriages survive just fine by avoiding conflict and pushing all fights under the rug. You don’t need to solve all your problems. It just depends on how you think about your marriage.
- Affairs are the root cause of divorce. Affairs aren’t usually the cause of divorce, but they are a natural side effect of an unhappy marriage. The problems that send couples on a trajectory towards divorce also often send the individuals looking for relationships elsewhere. Most marriages end because the couple gradually grew apart and did not feel loved or appreciated.
- Men are not biologically “built” for marriage. This theory is based on the law of the jungle or that men just want to have as many offspring as possible while women want to take care of their children. However, the frequency of extramarital affairs does not follow gender but opportunity. Now that so many women are working, the number of affairs by women has risen dramatically. Men actually fare better when they are in a longterm, loving relationship – just like anyone else.
- Men and women are from different planets. Some think that men and women are so different, we cannot get along. Although the genders do have differences, both men and women want the same thing: mutual friendship.
What does make a marriage work?
Dr. John Gottman has come up with 7 principles that make marriages work. These seven principles are all interconnected – if you work on one, it will help the others.
One helpful concept to understand before we dive into the seven principles is negative sentiment override and positive sentiment override. Negative Sentiment Override is where you have so many negative thoughts about your spouse, that you start to interpret everything they do in a negative way. On the flip side, Positive Sentiment Override is where you have so many positive thoughts about your spouse that you interpret everything they say and do in a positive way. This book will help you get back to positive sentiment override. The seven principles will help you strengthen your friendship again.
Principle #1: Enhance your Love Maps
Your love map is how well and intimately you know your partner and all the details of your partner’s world. How well do you know about everything that is going on in their life? What are their stresses? What are their joys right now? What are their goals and dreams and hopes?
You need to continually get to know your partner better. It isn’t enough if you think you knew your partner when you were dating because people change. Things happen in their lives. You need to be up to date on your partner’s world.
One reason it’s important to be current on your partner’s world is because it feels amazing to have someone know you and your thoughts intimately and still love you. Another reason is because then you can help and support your partner in what they are doing. The last reason is that this is just what friends do. They know each other. They know their likes and dislikes and what is going on in each others’ lives.
Principle #2: Nurture your Fondness and Admiration
It’s important that you actually like your partner. That you admire them and love them. Sounds obvious, right? But this takes work.
Our brain naturally tends towards the negative because its job is to keep us safe. So it looks for problems around you. That is why your brain naturally looks for all the problems in your spouse. This is not helpful if you want a happy marriage. You need to intentionally nurture your fondness and admiration of your spouse. Look for the good things about them. Compliment them. Tell your brain to look for the good things about your spouse by writing them down in a journal each night.
You can be the boss of your brain, so tell it to start looking for the good in your spouse.
Principle #3: Turn towards each other instead of away
Turning towards your partner means that you respond kindly to them during interactions. Dr. John Gottman found that couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice. So if you want to have a great marriage, remember to think about your partner and their well being often.
There are three types of turns in marital interactions: turning towards, turning against, and turning away.
You can turn toward your spouse by showing love and understanding. You can turn against them by escalating the negativity or fighting back. And you can turn away by withdrawing or leaving the conversation intentionally. In happy marriages, you need to turn towards your spouse a majority of the time. If you respond negatively to everything your partner does, then your marriage is heading towards divorce or extreme unhappiness.
Dr. John Gottman and his team would write down and code all the times that partners turned towards each other, turned away, or turned against. This is one of the key ways that they predict divorce. It is also how Dr. Gottman came up with his 5:1 rule. You need 5 positive interactions to balance out 1 negative interaction.
Dr. Gottman also recommends having a stress relieving conversation with your spouse everyday. During this conversation, try to:
- Take turns
- Don’t give unsolicited advice
- Show genuine interest
- Communicate your understanding
- Take your spouse’s side
- Express a “we against others” attitude
- Express affection
- Validate emotions
Principle #4: Let your partner influence you
In order to have a happy marriage, you need to let your partner influence you. This naturally happens when you love and respect your partner.
Dr. Gottman states that this can be a little harder for men than women. Often women naturally allow themselves to accept influence from their partner. But men can resist accepting influence.
When you accept influence from your partner, it is one of the highest compliments you can give. It opens your partner up to compromising with you. It opens them up to doing things your way because you accepted their influence.
Principle #5: Solve your solvable problems
There are two types of problems in marriages: solvable problems and perpetual problems.
Solvable problems are things that can be solved once. They are situational and don’t pop up in different forms later on. You can solve these issues by softening your startup (starting the conversation in a soft way), using “I” statements (talking about how you feel vs. how you think your spouse is wrong), learning to make and receive repair attempts, monitoring your physiology (whether you and your partner are getting upset), compromising, and being tolerant of each other’s faults.
Unsolvable problems are things that keep coming up. They arise from core personality differences or deep personal values or dreams. These are areas where neither person wants to change because the change would require them to not be themselves. Things like one person values saving money and being financially secure while the other spouse wants freedom to buy things and have fun. They can solve specific issues that come up, but the fact that one person will be more likely to want to save and the other more likely to want to spend will be an ongoing difference/issue. The best tactic for dealing with perpetual problems is to embrace them. Laugh about them. Don’t see them as attacks or rejections of love. Just learn how to deal with them.
Principle #6: Overcome Gridlock
Unsolvable problems become gridlocked when the two people are so angry at each other that neither will budge. You are stuck. Every time the issue comes up, you immediately become super angry and think about all the other times that the person has been unreasonable about this issue.
Remember that gridlock happens because two people’s cherished dreams or values seem to be in conflict with each other. The key to overcoming gridlock is to find a way to respect each person’s dreams. The first thing to do when trying to solve a gridlocked problem is to have each person talk about WHY it is so important to them. If it is too emotional for a conversation, maybe writing out an explanation is a good idea.
Once you have listened thoroughly to WHY this thing is important to them and figured out what their hidden dream is behind the problem, follow these steps:
- Each person defines the minimal core areas that they cannot yield on.
- Each person defines their areas of flexibility
- Together they devise a temporary compromise that honors both of their dreams.
You’ll know you are making progress on your gridlocked problems when they feel less heated to you. When the next time it comes up, you don’t get super upset, but are able to be humorous about it.
Principle #7: Create Shared Meaning
Your marriage really gets to the next level when you can create shared meaning together. When you can support each other’s dreams and find ways to be a part of each other’s lives in a meaningful way, it really uplevels your marriage. You can work on this area of your marriage by talking about your goals and dreams and making a plan to reach them together.
All of these principles feed back into each other. Pick one to work on. If you get better at one, it will help the others. It doesn’t really matter where you start. Good luck!