How to Solve Marriage Problems: The 4 Steps to Resolution

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 are the most common causes of disagreement in a marriage? How can you handle disagreement peacefully and effectively?

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, you’ll encounter two categories of disagreement in your marriage: solvable problems and perpetual problems. As their name implies, solvable problems are relatively simple issues that you can fix.

Here’s how to solve marriage problems in a calm and tactful manner.

Solvable Marriage Problems

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, relationship researcher John Gottman (along with co-author Nan Silver) explains how to solve marriage problems that are solvable:

Step 1: Adjust the beginning. If you begin the conversation negatively, you’re more likely to induce a negative response from your spouse. 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.”

(Shortform note: In Attached, Levine and Heller suggest other ways to adjust the beginning of your conflicts. First, time your discussion for when both of you are calm and collected. If the situation is already volatile, let it simmer down before you attempt an honest, forthright discussion. Second, when expressing your needs, keep in mind that your goal is not to make your partner feel inadequate but merely to express your needs without blaming or judging. This will help you focus on using phrases like “I need” or “I want.” Third, even if you do have a general complaint, use specific examples and concrete language; using generalities leaves room for misunderstandings.) 

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.

(Shortform note: Other relationship experts warn that you shouldn’t expect your partner to respond positively to your de-escalation attempt. If it doesn’t go over well, don’t get angry with your partner; rather, calm yourself and then evaluate what you could do differently—for example, you might adjust your tone. If you’re the one struggling to accept the de-escalation attempt, try switching your perspective: Look for the good in your partner instead of focusing on their flaws. Finally, after you’ve both calmed down, discuss any failed de-escalation attempts; knowing why they didn’t work will help you find ones that do.) 

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.

(Shortform note: Some experts suggest that your attachment style dictates how you respond to a fight. If you’re an anxious attacher, you may be prone to becoming flooded because you’re more highly attuned to the threat the fight poses (your partner leaving you). So it might be particularly important for you to take a break; if you can’t calm yourself, try distracting yourself by watching a TV show. In contrast, if you’re an avoidant attacher, you might resist any efforts to resolve conflict because you want to maintain some emotional distance. So try not to ask your partner for a break unless you really need one; don’t ask for a break as a way to avoid talking about the issue.) 

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. 

Calm Your Kids Down, Too

Just as calming your partner can help you work through a conflict, calming your child can make disciplining them easier. The No-Drama Discipline authors explain that if your child is feeling a strong emotion (like anger), their lower brain has taken control, so they no longer have access to upper-brain skills like emotional regulation. Therefore, they suggest that you try to connect with your kid, for example, by giving them a hug or acknowledging how they feel. By doing so, you’ll help their lower brain calm down so they can again access their rational upper brain. 

Additionally, just as regularly calming your partner has long-term benefits, so does regularly calming your kids: Over time, using connection to help calm the lower brain helps children strengthen the connections between their upper and lower brains so they can more effectively rein in the lower brain’s strong reactions.

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.

The Difference Between Negotiation and Compromise

Although Gottman and Silver use the terms “negotiation” and “compromise” interchangeably, other experts argue that these two terms mean different things. In a negotiation, each partner receives something they truly desire in exchange for letting their partner have something they really want. In a compromise, neither partner is ever fully satisfied because both settle for a less-than-ideal solution. Gottman and Silver’s technique is more like a compromise in that neither partner gets exactly what they want; however, both feel satisfied enough because the compromise satisfies their most important desires.

Like Gottman and Silver, these experts argue that effective negotiation requires receptivity to your partner’s needs as well as clarity on what exactly you need from your relationship. Unlike Gottman and Silver, these experts suggest that you bargain with your partner: Each of you should let your partner have their true desire so that you can also receive your true desire. You should end the negotiation feeling that this desire will truly be fulfilled; otherwise, the negotiation is unsuccessful and your problem will surface again.
How to Solve Marriage Problems: The 4 Steps to Resolution

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  • Why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential
  • Four principles for improving your marital friendship
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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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