Quality Communication

The Masters and Disasters of Marriage

By John Gottman

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2006.

Since 1973, John Gottman, Ph.D., has studied what he calls the “masters and disasters” of marriage. Through working with thousands of couples, Gottman has learned what makes marriages fail, what makes them succeed, and what can make them a source of great meaning. By examining partners’ heart rates, facial expressions, and how they talk about their relationship to each other and to other people, he is able to predict which couples will make it and which will not.

Below are some of Gottman’s top suggestions for how to keep your relationship strong.

Seek help early. The average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems (and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long.

Edit yourself. Couples who avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.

Soften your “start up.” Arguments ignite because a spouse sometimes escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark in a confrontational tone. Bring up problems gently and without blame.

Accept influence. A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, “Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,” and her husband replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them,” this guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice versa) is crucial because research shows women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well.

Have high standards. Happy couples have high standards for each other even as newlyweds. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behavior from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the road.

Learn to repair and exit the argument. Successful couples know how to exit an argument. Happy couples know how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Successful repair attempts include: changing the topic to something completely unrelated; using humor; stroking your partner with a caring remark (“I understand this is difficult for you”); making it clear you’re on common ground (“This is our problem”); backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art aikido, you have to yield to win); and, in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way (“I really appreciate and want to thank you for …”). If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.

Focus on the bright side. In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, “We laugh a lot”; not, “We never have any fun.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make deposits to your emotional bank account.