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Inside the Love Lab: Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work

By on October 24, 2009 – 11:07 pm  13 Comments

Laura L.C. Johnson, MBA, MA, is a licensed professional clinical counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. Visit the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center web site. She integrates positive psychology with cognitive behavior therapy, which has been shown to be effective for a wide variety of problems in hundreds of studies. Her clients learn skills to build positive emotions, optimism, and resilience while decreasing unhelpful thinking, behaviors, and emotions. Full bio. Laura's articles are here.



Couple

In the “Love Lab,” researchers claim they can predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will thrive or fail after watching and listening to them for just five minutes. The Love Lab is actually Dr. John Gottman’s Relationship Research Institute near the University of Washington in Seattle. Gottman and his team have been studying how couples argue and resolve conflict and have followed hundreds of couples over time to see if their marriages last. Using a scientific approach, they have found four negative factors that can predict divorce and seven positive principles that predict marital success.

The Four Horsemen

Gottman says he looks for certain kinds of negativity, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” to predict a relationship’s failure:

  • HorsesCriticism – Global negative statements about your partner’s character or personality.
  • Contempt – Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor can be poisonous because they convey disgust.
  • Defensiveness – This is a way of blaming your partner and can escalate the conflict.
  • Stonewalling – A partner may disengage from the relationship, signaled by looking away without saying anything and acting as though he/she doesn’t care about what the other is saying.

Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate tension during conflict – “to put on the brakes so flooding is prevented.” The Four Horsemen alone predict divorce with 82% accuracy but when you add in the failure of repair attempts, the accuracy goes to 90+%.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Older CoupleBased on Gottman’s research, he has developed seven principles that help improve a marriage’s chances of success:

1. Enhance Your Love Maps
Emotionally intelligent couples are familiar with the details of each other’s world. They remember the major events in each other’s history and keep up to date as the facts and feelings of their partner’s world changes. They know each other’s goals, worries and hopes in life.

2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
This is one of the most critical elements in a rewarding and long-lasting marriage. It involves feeling that your partner is still worthy of honor and respect in spite of their flaws. Gottman found that 94% of the time when couples put a positive spin on their marriage’s history, they are likely to have a happy future.

3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away
When a partner makes a bid for your attention, affection, humor or support, turning toward your partner is the basis of emotional connection. The real secret is to turn to turn toward each other in little ways every day.

4. Let Your Partner Influence You
KissingThe happiest marriages were those where the husband was able to convey honor and respect for their wife and did not resist sharing power and decision making. These husbands actively search for common ground instead of insisting on getting their way. Gottman found women were more likely to let their husbands influence them by taking their opinions and feelings into account.

5. Solve Your Solvable Problems
Resolving conflict involves five steps: soften your startup, learn to make and receive repair attempts, soothe yourself and each other, compromise and be tolerant of each other’s faults. Some suggested practices include:
• Complain but don’t blame.
• Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.”
• Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate or judge.
• Be clear, polite and appreciative.
• Don’t store things up.

6. Overcome Gridlock
Ending gridlock doesn’t mean solving the problem, but rather moving from gridlock to dialogue. Some steps are:
• Learn to uncover your partner’s dreams.
• Understand why each of you feels so strongly about the gridlocked issue.
• Soothe each other to avoid flooding.
• End the gridlock by making peace with the issue, accepting the differences between you, talking without hurting each other and compromising.

7. Create Shared Meaning
See if you can agree on the fundamentals in life. Create an atmosphere where you can speak candidly and respectfully about your values and dreams. Accept and respect that you each may have some dreams that the other doesn’t share.

How the Principles Work

HeartGottman did a nine-month follow-up of 640 couples who attended a two-day workshop where couples were trained in the seven principles for making marriage work. He found that the relapse rate, or return to their previous level of marital distress, was only 20% for couples who attended the workshop versus 30% to 50% for standard marital therapy.

Images:
Couple courtesy of roland.lakis
Four horsemen courtesy of jonathanb1989
Older couple courtesy of PBoGS
Couple sillouette courtesy of JLStricklin
Heart courtesy of qthomasbower

References:

Driver, J. L. & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43 (3), 301-314.

Gottman, J. Making Marriage Work

Gottman, J. M., Driver, J. & Tabares, A. T. (2002). Building the sound marital house: An empirically derived couple therapy. In Gurman, A.S. & Jacobson, N. S. (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 373-399). New York: Guilford.

Gottman, J. M. & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analysis using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41 (1), 83-96.

Gottman, J. M. & Notarius, C. I. (2002). Marital research in the 20th century and a research agenda for the 21st century. Family Process, 41 (2), 159-197.

Gottman, J. M. & Carrere, S. (2000). Welcome to the love lab. Psychology Today, September/Ocober Issue, 42-87.

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.

13 Comments »

  • Mary Catherine says:

    Hey Laura!

    I just wanted to ask a few questions about your article and relating to love/relationships as a whole. I’m taking a positive psychology class right now and I think your article helps to tie a ton of things together in the chapter we’re studying right now (positive interpersonal relationships).

    Something that some of us (students) are attempting to discuss amongst ourselves is the subject of companionate love vs. passionate love. We evaluate our romantic relationships and respond with which we think is the most important to sustain that relationship or which of those is most applicable to our current relationship. I likened passionate love to the spark that starts a fire, and companionate love to the kindling or fanning that sustains it and keeps it burning brightly. Do you think that these two types of love work together (simultaneously or sequentially) to sustain a strong marriage or do you think that they might work independently, where one type of love is better to keep a positive relationship?

    I will definitely keep your article in mind as I go through my relationship on a daily basis…I think this article is wonderful and I know that so many people/relationships will benefit because of it!

    -Mary Catherine

  • Sara says:

    Great article Laura! The four horsemen and the give/take in a reltionship (I love the picture of the lego horsemen by the way!) has always been something of interest to me. Do any one of the four horesmen stand out more than the others in terms of predicting divorce or are they all about equal in that regard?
    Once again, awesome article. I just got married over this past weekend and I will be sure to keep your article in mind as my husband and I continue on in the years to come!

  • Hi Sara,

    You ask a good question. The worst of the four horsemen is contempt because it conveys disgust. Gottman says that even in the presence of the four horsemen, if a couple can make successful repair attempts, such as calling a time out to deescalate conflict, then there might be hope for the marriage. However, when a person is getting the message that his/her partner is disgusted with them, this escalates conflict and can make repair attempts more difficult.

    Congratulations on your marriage! I am glad this article was helpful.

    Laura

  • Hi Mary,

    Interesting question about passionate vs compassionate love. I do think they work together. A relationship often starts with passion but it takes a successful transition to compassionate love to sustain it. In Gottman’s research, he found that fondness and admiration are the antidote to contempt, the most deadly of the four horsemen. He says it seems almost ridiculous to point this out but “people who are happily married like each other.” I think it’s important to nurture a deep friendship with one’s spouse and also to be realistic about the role of passion in a long term marriage.

    Laura

  • Emily Morgan says:

    Thank you so much Mrs. Johnson for yor article. I enjoyed this easy reading and advice on marriages through Gottman’s principles.

    My question has to do with my grandparents who live in Charleston, South Carolina. I just got back from spending a weekend with the two of them. My grandfather is 89 years old and he starting to loose some of his long-term memory, after already loosing most of his hearing.

    The number one principle talks about enhancing your love map. I have a question about how the loss of memory or dementia plays apart in the health of a marriage? They have been married for almost fifty years and I think they are going to make it through to the end, but I wanted to know if forgetting moments, events and details about one’s spouse can affect the number one principle’s outcomes and responses.

    Thank you,

    Emily Morgan

  • Marlena Wilson says:

    Hi Ms. Johnson,

    This is a wonderful article. I see this helping thousands of couples become more aware of how to give and receive love through their marriages. I would like to know if these rules apply strictly to heterosexual couples only. Do you think some principles could be added or taken away if one is in a same sex relationship? I loved this article. Keep writing!

    Thank you,

    Marlena

  • Senia says:

    Laura,

    I love this article because it’s one we can keep coming back to again and again for a summary of Gottman’s work.

    What a delightful comment from Sara and having just gotten married. Wow!

    Best,
    Senia

  • Julia Feldman says:

    Laura,
    I was very interested to learn about your work on relationship studies in the love lab. I myself would like to be tested with my boyfriend! I had a question though, you talk about resolving conflicts in a healthy manner, and I was wondering how much conflict is too much conflict? Did the divorce rate go up for couples who fought a lot constructively or just fought a lot? Thank you
    -Julia

  • Brittany S says:

    Hey laura!

    I have a question. First you article is a very good one, and something that I am glad I came across. Second, I understand that the fourhorsemen are the negative things and the 7 steps are used to come from that and have a successful relationship. However, what if you are in a difficult relationship and truly want it to work but both of the people in the relationship are hard headed and it is almost impossible to use those strategies. Do you have any advice as to what to do in this situation?

    Thank you!
    Brittany S

  • Jesse Walker says:

    Hello Ms. Johnson!

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I’ve struggled to understand relationships, and sometimes the secret to happiness seems so complicated and elusive. However, I was wondering if you believed that the couples who showed criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and/or stonewalling were all “doomed”, or if given the right amount of time and therapy, they could have worked it out? I have a few couples in mind that show these problem signs, but no signs of unhappiness. I know of one couple in particular that seems to hate each other and fight constantly, but have been together for a very long time and are very happy with their relationship. And also in my own relationships, if I see signs of these “horsemen”, statistically it means that the relationship will almost definitely fail, but are there ways to work through the 4 signs, or is it just prolonging the inevitable? I’m of course asking for your opinion, since anything is possible.

    Thanks so much for such an interesting article!

    Jesse

  • Kendra says:

    Hi Laura,

    If you cant truly trust someone anymore, should you still continue to try to make that relationship work or is there no hope for a relationship without trust?

  • Victoria Gilmore says:

    Hi Laura,

    I am a student in a positive psychology course this semester, and I found your article very interesting. After reading what you wrote about the Gottman study, I was hoping you could answer a few questions. First, are there certain principles out of the seven that are more important or particularly helpful when trying to bring the state of a marriage out of distress? I am also interested to know whether or not there are certain principles out of the seven that are harder than others for couples to implement, and stick with.

    Thank you,
    Victoria Gilmore

  • I couldn’t agree more. My relationship has numerous challenges and I found the principles for making marriage work to be transformative. It takes two, but by changing me, he changed in response. I’m now one Smitten Kitten.

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