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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Why do so many marriages end in divorce? What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
That’s the question relationship researcher John Gottman (along with co-author Nan Silver) answers in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The book is a step-by-step blueprint for cultivating a happier, emotionally fulfilling marriage.
Here’s a brief overview of John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (co-authored with Nan Silver) is a compilation of his research findings from the Love Lab. After years of watching couples in happy and unhappy marriages interact in the Love Lab, Gottman got so good at understanding what makes a marriage work that he could predict whether a couple would divorce with 91% accuracy.
We’ll explain why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential to your marital happiness and how you can improve your marital friendship by following four principles. Then, we’ll describe how fighting can increase your risk of divorce, and we’ll share Gottman’s three principles for learning to handle conflict effectively. Along the way, we’ll compare Gottman’s advice to that of other relationship experts and share further strategies to implement Gottman’s suggestions
Why Improving Your Marital Friendship Is the Key to Marital Happiness
Gottman and Silver argue that if you want a long-lasting and happy marriage, you must improve your marital friendship. In other words, you and your spouse must hold each other in high esteem and genuinely appreciate the time you spend together.
Gottman and Silver explain that a strong marital friendship supports a happy marriage because it encourages a phenomenon known as “positive sentiment override,” or PSO. If you have PSO, you trust that your partner is doing their best and assume that they have positive intentions. So you interpret your partner’s actions in the best possible way—which maintains positivity in the relationship.
But if you don’t have a strong marital friendship, you may experience the opposite of PSO: “negative sentiment override,” or NSO. If you have NSO, you assume that your partner is sabotaging you and has negative intentions. NSO leads you to interpret your partner’s actions in the worst possible way—fostering a negativity that permeates and ultimately destroys your relationship.
How to Improve Your Marital Friendship
Now that you know why improving your marital friendship is so important, how do you do it? Gottman and Silver say you must follow four principles: Keep getting to know your partner, foster and communicate affection, regularly respond to your partner’s overtures, and keep an open mind.
Principle 1: Keep Getting to Know Your Partner
According to Gottman and Silver, the first step to building a good marital friendship is to keep getting to know your partner. Happy couples are intimately familiar with the details of their partner’s lives; they store comprehensive information about each other in their brains (what Gottman and Silver call “love maps”). This information might include your partner’s favorite candy or their boss’s name.
Gottman and Silver explain that regularly updating your knowledge of your partner is essential for two reasons. First, you can only love someone if you know them. Second, making an effort to connect with your partner helps you maintain your connection through major life changes. For example, if your partner is laid off, regularly connecting with them during that time keeps you updated on what’s going on with them—so you don’t wake up one day and realize that they’ve changed so much that they’re now a virtual stranger.
To keep getting to know your partner, Gottman and Silver recommend that you regularly ask each other open questions that help you both reveal your inner thoughts and feelings. Answering these questions should require some thought; for example, instead of asking, “Do you like your job?” try asking, “What’s your favorite aspect of your job, and why?”
Principle 2: Foster and Communicate Affection
Gottman and Silver’s second step to building a marital friendship is fostering and communicating affection. This means deliberately focusing on your partner’s positive attributes and then expressing any loving feelings that arise.
According to Gottman and Silver, fostering and communicating affection is essential for two reasons. First, the more you pay attention to your partner’s positive qualities, the more likely you are to respect them—and the less likely you are to find them contemptible. (We’ll discuss why contempt is so dangerous to marriage later.) Second, if your marriage is in trouble, optimistically seeking out your partner’s positive qualities helps you gain a more authentic picture of your marriage. Researchers have found that unhappy couples regularly overlook positive exchanges they have with their partner—which erodes their marital satisfaction
Gottman and Silver suggest two methods of fostering and communicating affection toward your partner. First, spend a few hours discussing the history of your partnership—such as the details of your first dates or why you chose to get married. By doing so, you’ll unearth positive feelings about your partner that you may have forgotten. This is particularly important if your relationship is currently rocky: Even if you struggle to express affection toward each other now, as long as you can speak fondly of your past, your marriage has not been totally permeated by negativity, and it still has a shot.
Second, practice gratitude toward your partner. Each day, look for things your partner does that are worthy of gratitude—then express your gratitude to them in that moment. For example, if your spouse joins you on your evening walk despite the cold weather, say, “Thank you for coming with me on my walk.”
Principle 3: Regularly Respond to Your Partner’s Overtures
According to Gottman and Silver, the third step to improving your marital friendship is to regularly respond to each other’s bids, or overtures for connection. Sometimes, these overtures are obvious, like if your partner asks you to pick up groceries on your way home. Other times, these overtures are subtler—and they may even seem like a complaint. For example, if your spouse huffs that you never want to go out after work, this is actually a request for you to invite her out after work.
Gottman and Silver explain that regularly responding to these overtures improves your marital happiness by building up positive sentiment between the two of you—which, as we learned previously, allows you to weather life’s inevitable challenges.
Gottman and Silver suggest two strategies for responding more often to overtures. First, notice any requests that are presented as complaints. If your partner snaps at you, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and keep from getting defensive. Then, examine the complaint to see if there’s a hidden overture that you could respond to. If so, ignore the complaint and respond to the request.
Gottman and Silver’s second strategy is to intentionally reconnect each evening. Take turns sharing the highs and lows of your days. Put your phones aside so you can stay focused on each other during the conversation, and always back your spouse—even if you suspect they’re in the wrong. Remember that the point of this conversation is to connect with your spouse and to help both of you diffuse any externally caused stress (like troubles at work). You can’t do either if you attack your spouse’s choices (although you can express your concerns at another time).
Principle 4: Keep an Open Mind
Gottman and Silver’s fourth step to building a marital friendship is keeping an open mind. In other words, instead of making decisions unilaterally, be receptive to your spouse’s requests and concerns.
Gottman and Silver emphasize that learning to be receptive is especially important for husbands for two reasons. First, studies indicate that if a man isn’t receptive to his wife, the couple is far more likely to divorce. Gottman and Silver attribute this reality to how unreceptive men respond to negative feedback: Instead of acknowledging their wife’s feelings, they respond in ways that increase negative feelings between the couple.
Second, Gottman and Silver suggest that receptive husbands have happier marriages because they learn from their wives how to better manage their emotions. Since young girls worldwide tend to play games that highlight emotional and social skills, women tend to be better than their husbands at managing emotions. So a husband who’s receptive to learning from his wife in general will likely also learn how to manage his emotions—which improves his relationship skills and thus his marriage.
If you’re a man who struggles to keep an open mind, Gottman and Silver suggest two strategies for learning to become more receptive to your wife’s opinions. First, remind yourself that sometimes, giving in will get you what you want. Second, if you can’t give in all the way to your wife’s request, look for places where you can bend to what your wife wants.
For example, your wife may hate when you wear shoes in the house because they dirty the floors. In this case, you might decide that although you’d prefer to wear shoes inside, you don’t care that much—and so your wife’s happiness is worth the minor hassle of taking your shoes off inside. Alternatively, if you do care about wearing shoes inside, you might accept that vacuuming dirt out of the carpet is a major hassle, so you agree not to wear shoes on the carpet (but continue to wear shoes on non-carpeted surfaces).
How to Handle Conflict Effectively
Gottman and Silver suggest that the second key to improving your marital friendship is learning how to handle conflict effectively. In this section, we’ll first discuss how conflict destroys marriages and name some signs that your marriage might be in trouble. Then, we’ll share the two types of conflict that Gottman and Silver identify—and his advice on dealing with each type.
How Conflict Destroys Marriages
Gottman and Silver argue that conflicts can destroy marriages if they induce regular flooding—a psychological phenomenon in which one partner feels so emotionally stressed that they’re unable to respond rationally to their spouse. Someone who’s flooded is in fight-or-flight mode; both their heart rate and blood pressure are higher than normal. Men are more likely to become flooded than women.
According to Gottman and Silver, regular flooding leads to divorce because it leads spouses to emotionally detach from each other. If someone consistently feels flooded when fighting with their spouse, they start to expect that they’ll be attacked. Eventually, this expectation permeates the entire marriage—and in an effort to protect themselves emotionally, the flooded spouse disengages from the relationship. This emotional disengagement makes each spouse feel isolated…which eventually leads to divorce.
Signs a Marriage Is in Trouble
Gottman’s famed accuracy in predicting whether a couple will divorce relies on his ability to determine whether their conflicts might regularly induce flooding. To do so, he looks for three major warning signs.
1. The conflict has a jarring beginning, or what Gottman and Silver call a “harsh start-up.” Instead of gently conversing with each other, the couple begins a fight in an aggressive manner—which, according to studies, dooms it to end on a sour note as well.
2. The couple engages negatively with each other by using what Gottman and Silver call the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
Criticism. One spouse expresses dissatisfaction with their partner generally instead of expressing dissatisfaction about a specific issue. For example, they say, “You’re a slob,” instead of “You didn’t clean the kitchen when you said you would.”
Contempt. One spouse expresses dissatisfaction in a way that belittles their partner and signifies a lack of respect. For example, they might say, “I can’t believe you forgot to clean the kitchen. Are you stupid?”
Defensiveness. One spouse, who feels attacked by their partner, tries to protect themselves. However, this strategy backfires because it shifts responsibility onto the other partner. For example, the spouse who didn’t clean the kitchen might say, “I may have forgotten to clean the kitchen, but I cleaned the bathroom, which you never do.”
Stonewalling. One spouse feels overwhelmed and stops responding. (This spouse is likely feeling flooded.)
3. The couple doesn’t respond to each other’s de-escalation attempts, which Gottman and Silver call “repair attempts.” In moments of tension, one partner may try to de-escalate the situation—such as by admitting that they were partly wrong. Gottman and Silver say that not responding to these actions is the biggest warning sign that you’re at risk for divorce.
De-escalation attempts reduce your stress levels—as long as you notice the attempts, you reduce the likelihood that you’ll feel flooded. But if you don’t notice them, you get caught in a vicious cycle: You don’t notice the de-escalation attempt because you feel flooded—so your stress just keeps climbing during the argument, which makes you even less likely to notice succeeding de-escalation attempts.
Perpetual vs. Solvable Problems
So how can you reduce the likelihood that your conflicts destroy your marriage? In addition to increasing PSO by improving your marital friendship, Gottman and Silver recommend that you learn to deal with conflict effectively—which starts by identifying what kind of fight you’re having.
Gottman and Silver suggest that in your marriage, you’ll encounter two categories of disagreement: solvable problems and perpetual problems. As their name implies, solvable problems are relatively simple issues that you can fix. In contrast, perpetual problems stem from underlying differences between you and your partner. You cannot fix a perpetual problem; however, you can develop strategies for coping with it so it doesn’t turn into a huge issue.
Identifying what type of fight you’re having is critical because the coping strategies for solvable and perpetual problems differ, but both types of problems can destroy your marriage. This is because if left alone, solvable problems can turn into perpetual problems—and, as we’ll discuss later, perpetual problems can lead to gridlock, which can lead to divorce.
So how can you identify which category a fight falls into? This can be tough because the same issue may be either solvable or perpetual depending on the couple, but Gottman and Silver suggest that you use the following metric: If an issue is an isolated, relatively one-time thing, it’s likely solvable. If it’s more painful and ongoing, it’s likely perpetual.
For example, say that Annie is upset that Andrew doesn’t text her often. If Andrew recently started a new job and is not texting Annie because he wants to focus on impressing his boss, this is a solvable problem; he’ll likely text her more often once he’s settled in. In contrast, if Andrew likes having some time away from his wife while Annie wishes that Andrew would contact her more regularly whenever they’re apart, this is a perpetual problem that speaks to underlying differences regarding intimacy.
Principle 5: Fix Your Solvable Problems
Gottman and Silver outline a process for dealing with your solvable problems.
Step 1: Adjust the beginning. If you begin the conversation negatively, you’re more likely to induce a negative response from your spouse—which increases the likelihood of flooding. Instead, begin the conversation calmly. First, describe your emotions about the issue. Avoid making accusatory statements that begin with “you,” generalizing the issue, or passing immediate judgment. Second, express your desires (not what you don’t desire) to your partner.
For example, say that you’re upset because your partner is on their phone during dinner. Don’t say, “I can’t believe you’re on your phone! You never make time for me.” Instead, say, “I’m really upset that you’re on your phone during dinner. I’d like to spend time with you when we’re both focused solely on each other.”
Step 2. Practice de-escalation. As we learned previously, a crucial difference between happy and unhappy couples is whether they respond to each other’s de-escalation attempts. Gottman and Silver explain that improving your marital friendship will naturally increase the likelihood that you’ll notice your spouse’s de-escalation attempts, but he also recommends practicing de-escalation. During an argument, if you’re making the attempt, try announcing to your partner that you’re doing so. If you’re listening to the attempt, do your best to receive it and heed your partner’s request. For example, if they say, “I’m making a de-escalation attempt. Can we take a break?” let them do so.
Step 3. Calm down. Gottman and Silver note that if you’re feeling flooded, you likely won’t be able to have a productive discussion. So pay attention to your emotional and physical state: If you feel as though you’re about to blow up on your partner or your heart rate rises dramatically, you’re likely flooded. If so, take a 20-minute break to calm yourself. Do something that prevents you from ruminating on your argument; Gottman and Silver suggest physical exercise or meditation.
Once you’ve calmed yourself, try calming your partner. Gottman and Silver explain that if you regularly calm your partner, your partner will connect your presence with a reduction in stress rather than an increase in stress, which will naturally improve your relationship. This does not mean telling your partner to “calm down” mid-argument; this will only anger them further because they’ll feel as though you’re not taking them seriously. Instead, pick a time when you’re not fighting to brainstorm ways to relax each other. Then, after your 20-minute break, do the thing you’ve discussed; giving each other massages is a popular relaxation technique.
Step 4. Negotiate. Gottman and Silver argue that if you want a happy marriage, you must learn to negotiate a solution that works for both of you. If one of you consistently gives in to your spouse, you’ll breed resentment that damages your marriage.
To negotiate effectively, first adjust your attitude. You must be willing to hear your partner out, even if you think they’re wrong—otherwise, you won’t be able to have a productive discussion.
Second, each of you separately should draw two circles, one within the other. In the smaller circle, list everything about the issue that you can’t budge on. In the larger circle, list everything you’re willing to negotiate. Do your best to minimize the list in the smaller circle.
Third, share your circles with each other to negotiate a solution that incorporates both your inner circles. Try this solution for a few weeks; if the problem doesn’t improve, revisit your circles and come up with an alternative solution.
Strategies for Common Solvable Problems
Gottman and Silver suggest several strategies for dealing with some of the most common solvable problems in a marriage: issues surrounding household chores, parenting, and sex.
Household Chores. Gottman and Silver argue that solving issues around household chores will help you both feel as though you’re on the same side. In contrast, if one spouse (usually the wife) feels as though she’s taking on too much housework, she’ll feel like she’s in an inequitable marriage. This sense is often exacerbated by the reality that men often think they’re doing more housework than they are.
To more equally divide domestic labor, Gottman and Silver suggest that you first create an itemized list of every household chore you each do—such as clearing the table. Second, agree to split the responsibilities in a way that you both agree is fair. Third, do your assigned chores—without being reminded by your spouse. That said, be open to taking on more work occasionally; for example, if your spouse is especially busy at work, clear the table even when it’s not your turn.
Parenting. Gottman and Silver explain that how you handle having your first baby can be a critical turning point in your marriage. When a woman becomes a mother, her sense of identity dramatically transforms to encompass her new role; she is now part of a “we” that includes her and her child. Consequently, the husband starts to feel left out, and the health of the marriage suffers.
The solution, according to Gottman and Silver, is to include the husband in the process; both husband and wife should transform together into parents. Wives can encourage this process by letting the husband parent. Wives often correct new fathers’ parenting skills. But constant criticism leads the father to doubt his parenting skills and become increasingly less involved (which makes him feel left out and ultimately damages the marriage). So the wife must allow her husband to parent in his own way—without commenting negatively on his skills.
Sex. Gottman and Silver suggest that sex often falls by the wayside in a marriage because couples struggle to communicate their desires to each other. Therefore, if you want to improve your sex life, you must learn to communicate about sex.
Gottman and Silver suggest several strategies for making conversations about sex easier. First, be kind. Remember that the point is to improve your sex life, not to make your partner feel bad about whatever they’re doing. Second, develop rituals around asking for sex. Having a standardized way of asking will help you feel less vulnerable. For example, kissing your partner’s neck might indicate that you want sex; your partner might respond enthusiastically when interested but turn their head when uninterested. Third, be considerate when refusing or when you’re being refused. If you’re doing the refusing, express that you’re still attracted to your partner. If you’re being refused, receive your partner’s decision without negative comment.
Principle 6: Get Out of a Deadlock
In addition to fixing your solvable problems, you must learn to deal with perpetual problems and the damage they can cause—namely, deadlock, or what Gottman and Silver call “gridlock.” Gottman and Silver explain that you can learn to live with a perpetual problem. But if you don’t, the problem will build up and grow into a deadlock. A deadlock 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.
Step1. 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.
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.
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.
Principle 7: Cultivate Your Culture
Once you develop a strong marital friendship and learn how to handle conflict effectively, Gottman and Silver recommend that you cultivate your culture. He explains that every marriage has its own culture—a shared understanding of what matters and what you’re working toward. The greater this sense of shared understanding, the more fulfilling your marriage will be.
Gottman and Silver identify four common ways couples cultivate their culture. First, they have unifying ceremonies—ritualized, organized events or habits that foster closeness. These rituals may be something they grew up with or something they invent as a couple. Second, they have similar expectations for each other. For example, they might agree that when it comes to their children, one parent should be the nurturer while the other should be the discipliner. Third, they have a common purpose they can work toward. Fourth, they have something that represents what they both consider to be important in life. This can be a physical thing or a non-physical thing (like a story).
For example, Bea and Bridget both value education. Every Wednesday night, they might sit on the couch and read together (a unifying ceremony). They might agree that a parent’s job is to nurture their child’s intellect (similar expectations), so they budget more money on their kids’ education. They might encourage each other to go to the library because they want to become more well-informed (a common purpose). And they might steadily add to their home library (a physical object), which represents the schooling that they both value.
To cultivate your culture, Gottman and Silver explain that you must talk about what matters to the both of you. First, agree on two unifying rituals that you wish to implement in your lives. Then, discuss your purpose, your expectations, and the things that represent what you care about in life. You won’t agree on everything, and that’s OK. Moreover, you’ll need to continuously talk about what matters throughout your marriage. But as long as you can share some things and act considerately with respect to each other’s differences, you can cultivate a culture—and a more meaningful partnership.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work summary:
- Why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential
- Four principles for improving your marital friendship
- The three warning signs that your marriage is in trouble