Many have asked the oft-cited question: What makes a good marriage?
And for many couples, answers to this question do not come easily. With the aim of saving their marriage, many couples seek therapy—secular or religious—purchase books, attend seminars and invest lots of time and emotional energy in to their relationship. Sadly, not everyone succeeds, though.
A plethora of marriage books are on the market, but the one that stands out is John M. Gottman’s “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work,” published in 1999 (fortunately, the Gottman Institute offers a free a 16 page summary of the 260pp book here). According to Gottman, seven principles remain in doomed marriages:
• Harsh startups
• Failure to repair attempts
Based on these seven principles, Gottman made the shocking claim that he could predict—with 91 percent certainty—whether a couple would divorce. He only needed to spend about five minutes with the couple to make this prediction, he claimed. And although Gottman faced criticism for making such a claim, his divorce prediction remained accurate.
So, perhaps, there might be something to Gottman’s “Seven Principles.”
Why Marriages Fail
According to U.S. government data, the marriage rate is 6.8 per 1,000 people, and the divorce rate is 3.6 per 1,000 people, so the conclusion? About half of marriages end in divorce.
Many ideas abound as to why so many marriages fail.
Gottman, who in addition to publishing books, has also set up The Gottman Institute, which “provides training to professionals and families.” Moreover, through his research he has discovered that “[m]ost marital arguments cannot be resolved.” According to Tom Butler-Bowdon, a writer of popular psychology books, Gottman’s research “. . . found that 69 percent of conflicts involve perpetual or unresolvable problems.” These problems include how to raise a child or perhaps one partner wants to have sexual intercourse more often than another partner. Yet, citing Gottman, Bulter-Bowden notes that “[s]uccessful couples know this and therefore decide to accept each other ‘warts and all’.”
Gottman’s work has also revealed that “happy marriages are unusually open and honest.” In addition, Gottman has found that “[c]ouples do not end up in divorce courts because they have arguments.” They end up in divorce courts because the way in which they argue has an impact. A divide remains between personal attacks and legitimate complaints.
The “Seven Principles” Applied
So, based on Gottman’s work, what would a good marriage look like?
It remains important not to idealize marriage but to understand the habits of successful couples. Recalling Gottman’s “Seven Principles,” one habit of successful couples, for instance, is the absence of “flooding.” This happens when one partner “is overwhelmed by emotional attacks from the other.” Tense situations—verbal fighting—set off a series of psychological reactions that raises one’s heart rate and blood pressure. This usually worsens the situation. Health couples fight, no doubt, but flooding one’s partner with a verbal blitzkrieg is not one of the habits of healthy couples.
Another habit of health couples remains the absence of stonewalling. Stonewalling, in short, is when one partner ignores the other. In popular parlance, this—as noted by Butler-Bowden—is known as “tuning out.” Gottman’s research has revealed that in 85 percent of marriages, men are often the perpetrators.
A man’s response to conflict is likely to be more indignant, with thoughts of getting even or “I
don’t have to take this.” Women, on the other hand, are better able to soothe themselves down
following a stressful situation, which also explains why women nearly always have to raise the
issues of conflict in the relationship and men try to avoid them.
To conclude, it remains important that couples who hope to maintain or develop successful marriages cultivate healthy habits. Again, to repeat: Successful marriages do not exist in a fairytale world. Successful marriages remain successful because the individuals who participate in those marriages avoid destructive behaviors.
Although no relationship remains perfect, some couples (at least half according to government data) do make it work.
Bowdon, T. (2007). 50 psychology classics who we are, how we think, what we do: Insight and inspiration from 50 key books. London: Nicholas Brealey Pub.
Marriage and Divorce. (2014, June 19). Retrieved June 7, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm