John Gottman’s 4 Steps to Escape a “Gridlock” in a Marriage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" by John Gottman and Nan Silver. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is “gridlock” in the context of a marriage? What are the signs that your relationship has gotten stuck in a gridlock?

According to John Gottman, gridlock is the struggle to resolve an ongoing marital problem. In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (along with co-author Nan Silver), Gottman explains that you can learn to live with an ongoing problem. But if you don’t, the problem will build up and grow into a gridlock.

Here’s how to avoid getting into a gridlock and how to get out of it if you’re stuck.

Get Out of a Gridlock

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, gridlock is a situation when neither you nor your partner can imagine not getting your way, as backing down in any manner would mean losing something central to your identity.

Gottman and Silver warn that remaining deadlocked over an issue increases your risk of divorce. If you’re unable to budge on an issue, your conflicts become increasingly antagonistic. This may lead to flooding. Alternatively, you may try to push the issue under the rug, but not talking about it only increases resentment and decreases the trust you have in each other—which also leads to emotional disengagement and eventual divorce.

Gottman explains that having a strong marital friendship can help prevent deadlock. But if you’re already deadlocked over an issue, he recommends the following process to overcome it. 

Step 1. Figure out what you’re actually fighting about. Gottman and Silver say that if you’re deadlocked, the fight is not really about the issue on the surface. Rather, it’s about an underlying desire you have. Usually, this desire is something you’ve wanted since you were a kid. For example, if you regularly want to spend more than your partner does on vacation, this may reflect a deeper desire: You want to travel because you never got to go as a kid, while your partner had a financially unstable childhood and would rather save any extra money for a rainy day.

Step 2. Communicate your desire to your partner. Once you’ve each identified your underlying desires, calmly communicate them to your partner. If you’re sharing your desire, be clear and honest. If you’re listening to your partner’s desire, be curious. Remember that at this point, your goal is to acknowledge and accept what your partner wants. 

(Shortform note: Don’t skip Step 1 and jump straight into Step 2! Gottman and Silver’s technique is reminiscent of acceptance therapy, which encourages spouses to learn to accept each other’s differences even if they cause conflict. Acceptance therapists posit that if you feel that your partner supports and acknowledges your feelings on an issue, you’re more likely to compromise on aspects of it. Understanding the positive motivation behind your feelings can help your partner acknowledge and accept them—even if they don’t fully agree with what you want.)

Step 3. Negotiate. Using the same circle method you used to fix your solvable problem, decide on a way to temporarily deal with the issue you’re deadlocked over. Try it for two months; then, revisit the issue if necessary. Remember to take regular breaks and use de-escalation attempts to avoid or deal with flooding. 

Comparing Deadlock, Positional Bargaining, and Principled Negotiation

If you’re in a deadlock, you may be engaged in what the Getting to Yes authors Roger Fisher and William Ury call “positional bargaining.” In positional bargaining, each of you starts with a position, argues and defends it, and bargains until you reach a compromise. However, the harder you try to convince the other side of how right you are, and the more you defend your position against attack, the more strongly committed to it you become. You then feel you must save face by not giving in—just as couples in deadlock can’t fathom the idea of not getting their way. 

Positional bargaining, like deadlock, also undermines the ongoing relationship between the negotiators. These are usually businesses, so there’s no risk of divorce. But just as in married couples, the conversation grows increasingly antagonistic, building up anger and resentment—and hinders the ability of the two sides to work together in the future. Instead of positional bargaining, Fisher and Ury advocate “principled negotiation.”

Under this paradigm, the negotiators focus on the underlying interests behind your positions—your needs, desires, fears, and concerns—just as Gottman and Silver recommend you figure out what you’re really fighting about. Similarly, just as Gottman and Silver suggest you try multiple solutions if necessary, Fisher and Ury recommend that you come up with multiple options based on mutual interests to see what might work.

Step 4. Express gratitude. As Gottman and Silver point out, any conversation about a deadlocked issue will likely be tense—especially if you need multiple conversations to arrive at a mutually satisfying solution. End each conversation on a positive note by expressing gratitude for three things your partner has done recently. 

(Shortform note: In The Power, Rhonda Byrne suggests that regularly expressing gratitude has a compounding effect. When you show gratitude, you give love, so you’ll receive love in return. So the more frequently you express gratitude in your relationship, the more your relationship will improve.)

John Gottman’s 4 Steps to Escape a “Gridlock” in a Marriage

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  • Why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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