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  • Writer's pictureMark Walmsley

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work Summary

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Marriage Help Book

This book debunks myths on why marriages fail, discusses the tell-tale indications of failing marriages, and provides seven principles for couples to follow to enhance their marriages. Key insights:

  1. Relationships fail due to four types of negative interactions – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling

  2. Personality and interest differences don’t ruin marriage. Differences can be a source of strength or weakness depending entirely on how they are managed.

  3. Reciprocity – literally keeping score – is terrible for relationships. The right model is to provide ‘to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities’

  4. Principle 1 – Enhance your love maps; get to know everything about your partner

  5. Principle 2 – Nurture your fondness and admiration; reminisce on the early days, focus on their positive attributes

  6. Principle 3 – Turn toward each other instead of away; work together and support each other in the tough times

  7. Principle 4 – Let you partner influence you; be flexible and allow them to change your opinion or behavior

  8. Principle 5 – Solve your solvable problems; not all problems are created equal, so compromise, agree and move forward on the easier things

  9. Principle 6 – Overcome gridlock; learn to identify and manage the underlying issues surrounding unsolvable problems so they don’t destroy the relationship

  10. Principle 7 – Create shared meaning; take the time to discuss, agree, document, and revisit the shared meaning, purpose, or goals in your lives.

Book details

Full title: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. By John M. Gottman PhD, and Nan Silver.

Length: 320 pages, or 10 hours and 17 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: How and why relationships/marriages fail

According to Gottman, marriages don’t fail due to personality differences, affairs, or a lack of skills in conflict resolution or communication. At the center of a happy marriage is a strong friendship – one where the couple enjoy each other’s company, know each other intimately, and honor and respect each other. And while friendship won’t prevent disputes, it mostly prevents them becoming huge relationship breaking issues. Friendship creates a positivity about one’s partner that outweighs any negativity. Gottman discusses the Four Horsemen of Negative Interactions that indicate a relationship is in trouble.

The Four Horsemen of Negative Interactions. Conflict is typically healthy within a relationship as it can be productive in getting your needs met by your partner. However, it’s how you deal with conflict that can potentially be the problem. The four horsemen the Gottman introduces are counterproductive behaviors that negatively affect a relationship, and although all relationships participate in these behaviors at times, it is the persistent engagement in these behaviors that mark a difficult relationship in need of some remediation.

1. Criticism. Whereas a complaint focuses on a specific action (e.g. ‘you haven’t done XYZ like your promised), criticism expresses a negative general attitude about the person (e.g. ‘ you never keep your promises). Using the words: “You always” or “you never” are common ways to criticize. Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and to respond defensively. The antidote to criticism is to make a direct complaint that is not a global attack on your partner’s personality.

2. Contempt. Contempt is any statement or nonverbal behavior that puts you on a higher ground than your partner. Mocking your partner, calling them names, rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust are all examples of contempt. Of all the horsemen, contempt is the most serious. Couples have to realize that these types of put downs will destroy the fondness and admiration between them. The antidote to contempt is to lower your tolerance for contemptuous statements and behaviors and to actively work on building a culture of appreciation in the relationship. Gottman on contempt:

“Contempt is a corrosive that, over time, breaks down the bond between husband and wife. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.”

3. Defensiveness. When you attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint you are being defensive. Another way to be defensive is to whine like an innocent victim. Unfortunately, defensiveness keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication. Even if your partner is criticizing you, defensiveness is not the way to go. It will only fuel a bad exchange. The antidote to defensiveness is to try to hear your partner’s complaint and to take some responsibility for the problem.

4. Stonewalling. Stonewalling happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation by physically leaving, or disengaging from the discussion. The Stonewaller may look like he doesn’t care (80% are men) but that usually isn’t the case, as they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm down. This seldom works for the partner, especially if a woman, assumes they don’t care enough about the problem to talk about it. It can be a vicious circle with one person demanding to talk and the other looking for escape. The antidote is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and to agree together to take a break.

Fundamentally, great marriages don’t depend on conflict or damage management; they depend on how you strengthen the friendship and positivity in your relationship through your daily interactions. The 7 principles Gottman discusses are inter-related – improvements in any one area will positively impact the other areas.

Key insight 2: Solve your solvable problems – Principle 5

Generally speaking there are two type of problems in a marriage; solvable problems, and perpetual problems. The challenge for couples is they don’t take the time or make the effort to solve the solvable problems, so they add to the negative relationship burden alongside perpetual problems. This can eventually become over-whelming for couples. Gottman recommends couples try to identify solvable problems and recommends a five step process to fix them:

1. Soften your startup. Approach the issue without criticism or contempt. Describe what’s happening without blaming. Make “I” statements (‘when you do X, I feel Y’) rather than “you” statements (‘you never help me’). Focus on the positives rather than the negatives (‘I miss our dinner dates together’, rather than ‘I hate staying at home’).

2. Use repair attempts to diffuse tension. These are little interventions to stop a conflict from escalating into a full-blow argument. Gottman provides a list of scripted phrases such as ‘I feel defensive, can you please rephrase that’, ‘can we please take a break’, or ‘I’m starting to feel over-whelmed’. Gottman on repairs:

“Almost everybody messes up during marital conflict. What matters is whether the repairs are successful.”

3. Calm each other down. Learn to calm yourself and your partner down in response to stress. Take a 20 min break for yourself. Inquire about each other and support each other.

4. Compromise. All marriages require compromise. Gottman proposes a 3-step process as follows. First, each discusses their point of view. Second, each partner writes down their response to the problem in terms of essential and desirable outcomes, the latter being things that can be compromised on. Finally, discuss your lists with each other with a focus on areas of agreement. Gottman again:

“Often compromise is just a matter of talking out your differences and preferences in a systematic way.”

5. Be tolerant of each other’s faults. One way to solve a solvable problem is to agree the problem doesn’t exist. Sounds crazy, but we can do this simply by voluntarily accepting the partners ‘faults’ and deciding that they won’t be a problem anymore. Until you accept your partner’s minor flaws and imperfections, you will not be able to compromise successfully. Instead, you will be on a relentless campaign to alter your spouse. Conflict resolution is not about one person changing, it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.

Throughout this 5 step process Gottman emphasizes the importance of good manners and acting with grace.

“Most of these steps take very little training because we all pretty much have these skills already; we just got out of the habit of using them in our most intimate relationship. To a certain degree, my fifth principle comes down to having good manners. It means treating your spouse with the same respect you offer to company. When a guest spills wine, we say, ‘No problem. Would you like another glass?’ not, ‘You just ruined my best tablecloth. I can’t depend on you to do anything right. I will never invite you to my home again.’ We are sensitive to the guest’s feelings, even if things don’t go so well.”

Key insight 3: Create shared meaning – Principle 7

While Gottman’s first 6 principles help you build a healthy, secure marriage; the next step forward comes from creating shared meaning in the relationship. Gottman suggests that couples create shared meaning through the use of rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. As you begin your life together, it will be important – and fun – to establish these things as a way to give purpose and meaning to your relationship.

Your rituals help you on the long road of relationship. It can be an annual ritual or something more frequent. Gottman recommends rituals of connection to begin and end each day. You might also have weekly rituals like a Saturday hike or a Wednesday lunch; annual rituals that memorialize your first date, wedding proposal, or other significant date. Building these in early will habitualize your connection and tether you to one another and the relationship.

In Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work Gottman proposes some ways to generate shared meaning:

1. Rituals. These regular repeat events on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis that connect two or more family members and are a vital part of the family story. It might be a morning tea/coffee ritual, putting kids to sleep ritual, weekend walk, or other activity.

2. Life roles. Discuss and agree each partners roles in/outside the marriage; such as worker/home keeper, wife/husband, mother/father, children disciplinarian, and so on. Note that as circumstances change – such as children arriving, growing up, and leaving home – the roles will also need to change.

3. Life goals. It helps for couples to think about and share the personal and shared life goals. Perhaps it is travel, hobbies, or further study; or financial goals related to major purchases or retirement. Either way these should be discussed and agreed so the couple can work towards them. From Gottman:

“Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to saving and enriching your marriage.”

One way to document your shared meaning is to create a Family Culture Covenant; a map of sorts for an abstract road, an aid to guide us through the seasons of life. If we begin to drift away from each other or go on autopilot in our relationship, we can turn back to our list to remind us of who we want to be. Unlike our marriage covenant, which seals marriage vows, the culture covenant is a living document—it may change over time as you change and your priorities change.

If you’re looking for an activity to help create meaning in your marriage, make your own culture covenant. Sit down with your spouse, take pen to paper, and ask each other questions about what kind of culture you want to create in your relationship. What is your current family culture, and what would you like it to be? What specific values can you agree upon that will help you get there? Some final words from Gottman:

“Even making just a small and gentle change in the trajectory of your marriage can have a dramatic, positive effect over time.”
“Improving your marriage is a kind of journey… it begins by suspending disbelief, taking one small step, and then seeing where you are and taking the next step.”

Bonus Key insight 4: Common myths in marriage

Gottman discusses several common myths associate with marriage (success and failure) as listed below:

  1. Personality problems ruin marriage. This is not true. We are all different and those differences can be a source of strength or stress. How how manage the difference is what matters.

  2. Common interests keep people together. As with personality differences above, it’s not interest alignment that matters, but how you go about the pursuit of those interests that matters.

  3. Reciprocity keeps a good relationship. Reciprocity is literally keeping score on who does what in a relationship – this is terrible! What if one partner gets sick – should the other partner tally up all they do to help them? Of course not.

  4. Extra-marital affairs cause divorce. Not true – affairs happen because of other problems in the relationship. Whilst affairs are usually about a lack of intimacy/sex; around a quarter of surveyed divorced folks said the affair was not even partially to blame for the divorce.

  5. Men and women are different in ways that matter. The most famous phrase here is “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. To the extent that genders have different personalities, interests, intimacy requirements; then these differences if not understood or managed contribute to marriage difficulties.

Other insights from Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

4. Principle 1 – Enhance your love maps. Make the effort to get to know everything about each other. Their history, friends and rivals, work situation, goals and dreams, worries and fears, health challenges, and so on.

5. Principle 2 – Nurture your fondness and admiration. Enjoy reminiscing about the early romantic days of your relationship. Be deliberate in reflecting on each other’s positive qualities. Discuss each other’s philosophy to a successful marriage – why they work or fail. Gottman provides a 7-week program in the book to support this activity.

6. Principle 3 – Turn toward each other instead of away. You don’t need to rely on romantic getaways or expensive gifts to sustain their relationship. Happily married couples habitually turn toward each other in their daily interactions by making time to call each other or doing grocery shopping together. They inject engagement and fondness into seemingly-mundane gestures, thus building up their emotional bank account and the sense of positivity toward each other which gets them through to tough times.

7. Principle 4 – Let your partner influence you. Gottman found that in the long-run, the happiest and most stable marriages are those where the couple works as a team—they consider each other’s perspectives/feelings and seek common ground when there is a disagreement.

8. Principle 6 – Overcome gridlock. Gottman states that 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual problems that can’t be fully resolved as the issues are so intense and hard to fix because they involve hopes and aspirations that are a part of your self-identity. Learn to live with the issue by identifying the underlying issues and how these can be managed without one partner having to give in. Discussion Is the key.

9. A useful guide for pre-marriage. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is also a good guide book for serious couples contemplating marriage. It will help them understand their relationship strengths and weaknesses, as well as their combined willingness to work to strengthen the relationship.

10. Road test a potential relationship. One of the strengths of The Seven Principles approach is its versatility in addressing all stages of a relationship. This book is for you if you’re single and looking to ‘road test’ your relationship before making a permanent commitment.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

At some point, you will enter a serious relationship with a potential life-long partner. However, neither society nor your parents have provided you with the knowledge you need to thrive or spot danger. This book addresses that shortfall.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. This book touches on the importance of choosing a life partner and prioritizing that partner above most else.

#3 – Atomic Habits. This books talks about building great things through tiny changes in our lives. You can leverage these principles through daily habits with your partner that build relationship capital.

#4 – The Defining Decade. This book discusses the importance of taking our 20s seriously – which includes consideration of a life partner.

#5USA – Set for Life. This book provides a framework for managing household finances in a way that reduces stress on a couple thus enabling a stronger relationship.

#5AUS – The Barefoot Investor. This book provides a framework for managing household finances in a way that reduces stress on a couple thus enabling a stronger relationship.

#7 – Emotional Agility. This book helps with decoupling emotions from one’s persona making it easier to deal with difficult situations.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. This book addresses many aspects relevant to relationships, but notably is Rule 10 – Be precise in your speech which deals with being precise in identifying problems and resolving them with your partner.

#15 – 50 Etiquette Lessons. This book talks about manners and grace, essential elements in your daily interactions with your partner and more broadly your family.

#17 – Crucial Conversations. This book provides advice on how to handle tough conversations to achieve good outcomes. An essential skill in working through the inevitable challenges of any marriage.

Book resources

About the authors

John Mordecai Gottman (born 1942) is an American psychological researcher and clinician who did extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability. He is also an award-winning speaker, author, and a professor emeritus in psychology. He is known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations, many of which were published in peer-reviewed literature. The lessons derived from this work represent a partial basis for the relationship counseling movement that aims to improve relationship functioning and the avoidance of those behaviors shown by Gottman and other researchers to harm human relationships.

Gottman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman co-founded and lead a relationship company and therapist training entity called The Gottman Institute. Gottman was recognized in 2007 as one of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century.

Nan Silver is a journalist, blogger and New York Times best-selling author specializing in parenting, relationships, psychology and health. She has stints as editor-in-chief of Health magazine, and contributing editor at Parents magazine.

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