John Gottman The seven principles for making marriage work
"The key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is not in how you handle disagreements but in how you are with each other when you're not fighting."
This is what John Gottman, professor of psychology and couples researcher has to say in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999). Gottman's conclusions are based on over 16 years of studying couples as they live out a typical weekend.
There are clear patterns of interaction that mark a relationship under real strain. Gottman uses these to predict which relationships will break up, and he has a 91 % rate of accuracy. This book identifies them and shows the damage they do. You might easily recognise relationships you've seen or been part of in the descriptions he gives.
The ground breaking part of this work is that he also identifies seven principles that make relationships work. The central idea is that couples can deliberately act in ways that keep the scales tipped in favour of the good feelings they have about each other. The big store of positive experiences offsets the times when their feelings about each other are negative.
So what are the principles that John Gottman recommends?
Principle 1 Enhance Your Love Maps
Relationships are about closeness, and one way of being close is knowing what goes on in each other's lives. This is about taking the time and effort to know what matters to your partner. You know how long to brew their tea, how they'll vote in the next election, and what they're scared of hearing when the phone rings late at night. You know about their expectation of promotion and their private dream to run a marathon.
Detailed knowledge will help you to recognise and address stresses and changes. It will help you to make plans that take both of you into account. It will help you have many small ways of doing something nice for your partner that you know they will appreciate.
Principle 2 Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
Your affection and respect for each other protects you. It stops hurt feelings developing into bitter, dismissive, disgusted feelings about your partner. The book outlines some exercises to help you deliberately practice being aware of the things you enjoy and admire about your partner.
Principle 3 Turn Towards Instead of Away From Each Other
Turning towards each other is about responding positively to your partner when they invite your attention. They might be making incidental chit-chat, they might be asking for help, inviting your opinion, or sharing a joke. It doesn't have to be a deep and meaningful conversation. Really what you are both doing is signalling your interest and willingness to be connected. Couples who do this keep the lines of communication open between them. They stockpile good will.
"Turning towards is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion and a good sex life."
Principle 4 Let Your Partner Influence You
Sharing power and decision-making between the partners in a relationship is crucial. Always agreeing is not necessary. Displaying respect for your partner by seeking their views and taking them into account is.
More men than women struggle with this. Traditional ideas about gender roles may be undermining the resilience of some relationships. The research shows an 81% chance of relationship collapse where a man cannot accept his partner's influence.
Principle 5 Solve Your Solvable Problems
Some problems can be solved with good will, empathy and good listening. Some couples find that mix difficult, especially in the heat of disagreement. There is a five step process Gottman has observed many couples using successfully. Start the conversation gently. Keep easing the tension by showing your underlying friendliness to each other. Break off the conversation and sooth yourselves if it gets too tense. Don't try to win, try to find an answer you can both live with. Accept each other flaws and all.
Principle 6 Overcome Gridlock
Some problems aren't readily open to compromise. If you can't solve the problem then try solving the fight you keep having. Focus on figuring how the two of you can live with your different positions.
Gottman suggests that the problem will be thwarting some of your most precious dreams. If you can identify these you may find you at least have more sympathy for each other, even though you don't agree. You may find some aspects of the situation are negotiable. You create the flexibility you can and you accept what you can't change with good grace. You keep attending to this issue because it will evolve over time and you may yet find a way through it.
Principle 7 Create Shared Meaning
Creating a shared culture in your relationship helps to give you a sense of belonging and unity. This is about creating something more than a relationship where you don't have destructive fights. Let each other know about the values, rituals and beliefs that guide you. You don't have to agree on all these things. Letting your partner see more of what makes you tick deepens your relationship.
The book includes a range of very practical activities you can do as a couple to develop these principles in your relationship.