Gottman, John M., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Crown, 1999). Available from Amazon here.
Common Myths about Marriage
- Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that communication is the royal road to romance and an enduring, happy marriage. The message we receive about having a better marriage is that we need to learn to communicate better. The idea is that active listening and using “I” statements is going to fix the marriage – however this doesn’t seem to work because at the end of the day, you are still criticizing your spouse. Conflict resolution is not what makes marriage works.
- You should never have disagreements with your spouse. Gottman found that loud arguments, even screaming matches, does not necessarily harm a marriage. His research found that in the 650 couples he tracked for 14 years, the successful couples rarely engaged in “active listening” when they were upset.
- Avoiding conflict will ruin your marriage. “Plenty of lifelong relationships are happy even though couples tend to shove things ever the rug.” No style of conflict is superior – it just needs to work for both people – avoidance, screaming, etc.
- Your partner is going to be the end all/be all. We all need a multitude of people to satisfy different parts of our personality.
- You are never going to wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?”
- You get off to a rough start. Studies have found that you can tell the outcome of an argument in the first three minutes. If your start-up is rough, stop the conversation, take a breath and resume it at another time.
- Criticism of Partner’s Personality
- Denying Responsibility. No matter what your partner charges, you insist in no uncertain terms that you are not to blame.
- Making Excuses. You claim that external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way.
- Cross-Complaining. You meet your partner’s complaint (or criticism) with an immediate complaint of your own, totally ignoring what your partner has said.
- Repeating Yourself. Rather than attempting to understand the spouse’s point of view, couples who specialize in this technique simply repeat their own position to each other again and again. Both think they are right and that trying to understand the other’s perspective is a waste of time.
- The first step toward breaking out of defensiveness is to no longer see your partner’s words as an attack but as information that is being strongly expressed. Try to understand and empathize with your partner. This is admittedly hard to do when you feel under siege, but it is possible and its effects are miraculous. If you are genuinely open and receptive when your partner is expecting a defensive response, he or she is less likely to criticize you or react contemptuously when disagreements arise.
- Stonewalling/emotional withdrawal from interaction: Stonewalling often happens while a couple is in the process of talking things out. The stonewaller just removes himself by turning into a stone wall. Usually someone who is listening reacts to what the speaker is saying, looks at the speaker, and says things like “Uh huh” or “Hmmm” to indicate he is tracking. The stonewaller abandons these messages, replacing them with stony silence. Stonewallers do not seem to realize that it is a very powerful act: It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. It is very upsetting to speak to a stonewalling listener. This is especially true when a man stonewalls a woman. Most men don’t get physiologically aroused when their wives stonewall them, but wives’ heart rates go up dramatically when their husbands stonewall them.
- Viewing sex as a type of currency or something that belongs completely to you. This is a limited, harmful view of human sexuality. On the one hand we have society saying that we should be oversexed and on the other hand we have the pressure to be sexless. There is also the belief that sex belongs only to you –sex is a service. It brings couples closer together, it is a stress relief, it is a way to focus completely on your spouse and your relationship.
- Feelings of frustration and hopelessness over “failed” repair attempts
- Seeking professional help through therapy too late
Positive Behaviors to Practice
- Have your focus be positive – have the overall view of your marriage be positive – this causes people to feel optimistic about each other. Have your set-point be positive. Most marriage start out with a positive set point – things happen and the set-point becomes negative. This requires a CLEAN SLATE – all the time. Clean slate every interaction. This is difficult.
- Get to know your spouse – really well. Job, stresses, things he does to relax, dreams, favorite movies/etc., how to help him calm down, current thoughts, etc.
- Express support for your spouse.
- Soften your startup, learn to make/receive repair attempts, soothe yourself and partner, compromise, be tolerant of each other’s faults.
- Accept your partner’s faults – Not every hill is worth dying for, and there may be things that will never change. What behavior can you accept that may never change?
- Complain, but avoid criticizing.
- Comment on behavior you want repeated – ignore behavior you do not want repeated.
Be humble in your relationship. Many times you feel vindicated in your anger and maybe sometimes you are, but what good does it do? Does it actually ever make the relationship better? We’ve heard many examples of how anger in like poison – it infects the person holding it, and it is true. Be aware – take a breath – step away – bring logic into the moment. Make every day a clean slate – forget what happened yesterday, forget what happened ten minutes ago. Your partner may initially resist this change but if you are consistent and you stick with it, this will become the new normal.