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 most marriages fail? How can you minimize the chances of your marriage ending in divorce?
In their book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman and Silver explain 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 robust your marriage will be.
Here’s how the lack of a shared culture destroys marriages and how couples can work toward cultivating it.
Cultivating a Shared Culture in a Marriage
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).
(Shortform note: Why do most marriages fail? The lower rate of divorce for same-race couples compared to mixed-race couples point to one possible reason so many marriages end in divorce. One report found that interracial couples have a 10% higher chance of divorce than same-race couples. Although race and culture are not the same, the interracial couples may have also been in intercultural marriages—and so had less of a shared understanding than the same-race couples who may have had same-culture marriages.)
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.
(Shortform note: Gottman and Silver appear to be unique in discussing the value of a culture within a marriage—whether or not the couple has children. Most literature in this area focuses on the broader “family culture,” which includes all members of a multigenerational family. Experts don’t specify the importance of symbols, ceremonies, or common purposes, but they do note that in a family culture, there are strong expectations: The parents expect that their offspring will continue their culture, and each member of the family expects to be treated relatively similarly. Additionally, a family culture is usually implicitly understood among members of the family rather than stated aloud.)
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.
(Shortform note: Discussing what matters to the both of you is particularly important if you’re in an intercultural marriage. You may have rituals, purposes, expectations, or symbols that you don’t even realize matter until your spouse challenges them. Moreover, your in-laws or parents may be upset if you choose to cultivate a culture that goes against their cultural values. Like Gottman and Silver, experts suggest that you can work through any issues as long as you remain tolerant of each other’s cultures, are open to learning, and are willing to have potentially tough conversations with your spouse, your parents, and your in-laws.)
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