How to Improve Your Marriage: The 4 Principles to Follow

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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Are cracks beginning to show in your marriage? What are some things you can do to prevent your marriage from deteriorating beyond repair?

If you are seeing signs that your marriage is beginning to fail, put your efforts toward improving your marital friendship. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, improving your marital friendship is a matter of following four principles.

Here’s how to improve your marriage, according to Gottman.

Principle 1: Keep Getting to Know Your Partner

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, relationship researcher John Gottman (co-authored with Nan Silver) explains how to improve your marriage by strengthening your marital friendship. According to Gottman and Silver, the first step to building a strong 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 Improve Your Marriage: The 4 Principles to Follow

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  • 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

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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