Review of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" book

Ever since I watched the NVC video I reduced certain confrontations by implementing some of the strategies from the video. I have been thinking since then: “wow, what else can I optimise”?

As a nerd1 I growing up with strong drive for self-improvement, I found many academic pursuits easy to learn and optimise. Language learning, mathematics, programming, logical reasoning and argumentation - these sort of stuff comes relatively easy to me. But interpersonal relationships? This area of my life has always been underperforming, but I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman goes into explaining how to improve your relationship with your significant other. Mind you though, John Gottman acquired somewhat bad reputation for certain misuse of statistics in his work and making bold claims such as the fact that he can predict whether a couples’ marriage would eventually fail with 91 percent accuracy after listening to the couple interact (in a controlled environment) for as little as five minutes.

I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I suspect he’s just another researcher who got overexcited about his own work, which is extremely common. Overall his book introduced many useful concepts to me and I will try to keep them in mind.

First big realisation, is that successful marriages are built on… friendship:

The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship.

That’s really his main thesis of the book and he goes on into how one would go into improving the quality of the couple’s friendships. There are many useful tidbits in the book too. For example, if you are having marital problems and opt for marital therapy; how do you know when to stop? 9 months seems to be the magic number: “those who retain the benefits of therapy through the first nine months tend to continue them long-term”.

Another interesting idea of the book, is that couples’ theory often focuses on establishing blameless, empathetic communication between spouses in an effort to resolve their differences. But the reality is, only very few people are capable of communicating in such manner at the height of their marital distress. It is very hard to not hear blame and criticism when the relationship hits a rough path. Moreover, many successful couples don’t exhibit this pattern of communication but survive just fine nevertheless. Gottman’s view is that establishing empathetic connection is certainly useful, but is not necessary. Moreover, he insists that certain problems between couples are perpetual; thus the focus on resolving them is misplaced. Even successful couples have issues that are not likely to be resolved, ever. Quote:

Perpetual problems

Unfortunately, the majority of marital conflicts fall into this category- 69 percent, to be exact. Time and again when we do four- year follow-ups of couples, we find that they are still arguing about precisely the same issue. It’s as if four minutes have passed rather than four years. They’ve donned new clothes, altered their hairstyles, and gained (or lost) a few pounds and wrinkles, but they’re still having the same argument.

Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive

The main difference between successful and unsuccessful couples is that successful couples don’t feel overwhelmed by the perpetual problems and they have certain humour about it.

Stepping back a little bit, what does the book say about unsuccessful marriages? What kills those? Four Horsemen, says Gottman.

Horseman 1: Criticism.

You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there’s a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global—it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality. “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it” is a complaint. “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care” is a criticism.

Horseman 2: Contempt.

This sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are namecalling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt–the worst of the four horsemen–is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.

Horseman 3: Defensiveness.

Although it’s understandable that Cynthia would defend herself, research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly. When Cynthia tells Peter how hard it is for her to wash her car, he doesn’t say, “Oh, now I understand.” He ignores her excuse–he doesn’t even acknowledge what she’s said. He climbs farther up his high moral ground, telling her how well he takes care of his vehicle and implying that she’s spoiled for not doing the same. Cynthia can’t win—and neither can their marriage.

Horseman 4: Stonewalling.

Think of the husband who comes home from work, gets met with a barrage of criticism from his wife, and hides behind the newspaper. The less responsive he is, the more she yells. Eventually he gets up and leaves the room. Rather than confronting his wife, he disengages. By turning away from her, he is avoiding a fight, but he is also avoiding his marriage. He has become a stone waller. Although both husbands and wives can be stone wallers, this behavior is far more common among men, for reasons we’ll see later.

Another interesting concept I want to talk about is a repair attempt. Here’s an example of it:

For example, here’s what happens when Olivia and Nathaniel argue. As they plan to move from the city to the suburbs, tensions between them are high. Although they see eye to eye on which house to buy and how to decorate it, they are locking horns over buying a new car. Olivia thinks they should join the suburban masses and get a minivan. To Nathaniel nothing could be drearier–he wants a Jeep. The more they talk about it, the higher the decibel level gets. If you were a fly on the wall of their bedroom, you would have serious doubts about their future together. Then all of a sudden, Olivia puts her hands on her hips and, in perfect imitation of their four-year-old son, sticks out her tongue. Since Nathaniel knows that she’s about to do this, he sticks out his tongue first. Then they both start laughing. As always, this silly contest defuses the tension between them.

In our research we actually have a technical name for what Olivia and Nathaniel did. Probably unwittingly, they used a repair attempt. This name refers to any statement or action–silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. Repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples–even though many of these couples aren’t aware that they are doing something so powerful. When a couple have a strong friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way.

Successful couples not only are good at sending each other repair attempts, they are also good at receiving them.

Another concept worth mentioning is “harsh startup”. Imagine you are really annoyed with your partner and want to bring an issue with him/her. “Statistics tell the story: 96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction!”, says Gottman. Turns out if you start with criticism, not a complaint, then you have already made this conversation unproductive.

Interesting that his research also focused on predicting whether a relationship is unsolvable. Turns out the best predictor is how fond spouses are about their early days. If they still cherish those memories of early days, if they remember why they fell in love with each other, then there’s still plenty of hope for the couple. However when neither of the spouses can even recollect what it is that they found attractive in one another years back, then the relationship is in deep trouble:

When a marriage gets to the point where the couple have rewritten their history, when their minds and bodies make it virtually impossible to communicate and repair their current problems, it is almost bound to fail. They find themselves constantly on red alert. Because they always expect to do combat, the marriage becomes a torment.

The understandable result: They withdraw from the relationship.

Sometimes a couple at this end stage of marriage will come for counseling. On the surface it may seem like nothing much is wrong. They don’t argue or act contemptuous or stonewall. They don’t do much of anything. They talk calmly and distantly about their relationship and their conflicts. An inexperienced therapist could easily assume that their problems don’t run very deep. But actually one or both of them has already disengaged emotionally from the marriage.

Yet another interesting term is “bids” for attention. See more:

I call “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. People either turn toward one another after these bids or they turn away. Turning toward is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

So in the Love Lab my favorite scenes are the very ones that any Hollywood film editor would relegate to the cutting room floor. I know there’s deep drama in the little moments: Will they read the Sunday paper together or silently alone? Will they chat while they eat lunch? Watching them is suspenseful because I know: Couples who turn toward each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married. Those that don’t eventually lose their way.

The reason for the differing outcome of these marriages is what I’ve come to call the couple’s emotional bank account. Partners who characteristically turn toward each other rather than away are putting money in the bank. They are building up emotional savings that can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re faced with a major life stress or conflict. Because they have stored up all of this goodwill, they are better able to make allowances for each other when a conflict arises. They can maintain a positive sense of each other and their marriage even during hard times.

Another concept that Gottman brings is about what he calls “emotional intelligent husband”. It is about the fact that in successful partnerships men accept influence of their wives. Husbands are encouraged to yield on issues more often. Gottman claims that women are, culturally or biologically, better at yielding on everyday issues, compared to men.

Perhaps the fundamental difference between these two kinds of husbands is that the “new” husband has learned that often in life he needs to yield in order to win. When you drive through any modern city, you encounter frustrating bottlenecks and unexpected barricades that block your normal and rightful passage. You can take one of two approaches to these impossible situations. One is to stop, become righteously indignant, and insist that the offending obstacle move. The other is to drive around it. The first approach will eventually earn you a heart attack. The second approach–which I call yielding to win–will get you home.

The classic example of a husband yielding to win concerns the ubiquitous toilet seat issue. The typical woman gets irritated when her husband leaves the toilet seat up, even though it only takes her a millisecond to put it down herself. For many women a raised toilet seat is symbolic of the male’s sense of entitlement. So a man can score major points with his wife just by putting the seat down. The wise husband smiles at how smart he is as he drops the lid.

That’s probably enough sharing. I obviously shouldn’t try reprint the entire book here. The short end of it though, is that it is a wonderful read!

  1. I know I know, “keep your identity small”. It’s kinda hard to deny this at this stage though.