Seven Principles for a Healthy Marriage

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | September 6, 2013

Book Review:

Seven Principles of a Healthy Marriage (2000) by John Gottman

What makes some relationships last while others fizzle out? This million dollar question has been asked by theorists as well as members of the general public for hundreds of years. Dr. John Gottman has devoted his life’s work to addressing the complex question of what makes a healthy marriage. After years of research, Dr. Gottman is the closest we have ever been to answering this very question.

By studying couples in his “Love Lab,” Dr. Gottman can predict with an accuracy rate of 91 percent which couples will succeed, and which will fail at their marriages. The most rewarding findings of his research are the seven principles that prevent a marriage from breaking up, even for those couples tested in the lab who seemed to be headed for divorce. The following is a summary of Dr. Gottman’s findings in his book: Seven Principles of a Healthy Marriage.

1. Enhance your Love Map

Successful couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. They have a richly detailed “love map.” They know the major events in each other’s history and they keep updating their information as their spouse’s world changes. For example, he could tell you how she’s feeling about her sister and her parents’ divorce. She knows that he fears being “left behind” at work and has a desire to be respected by his coworkers. They know each other’s goals, worries, and hopes.

2. Nurture Fondness and Admiration

Fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a long-lasting romance. In order for the relationship to be healthy, one must believe that their husband or wife is worthy of honor and respect. Dr. Gottman recommends that couples remind themselves of their spouse’s positive qualities­—even as they grapple with each other’s flaws—and express out loud their fondness and admiration.

3. Turn towards each other

In marriage people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Turning toward this gesture of affection is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion…and a good sex life.

4. Let your Partner Influence You

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which both members can equally share power and decision making responsibilities. The husband and wife must treat each other with respect and support one another in the choices they make. When the couple disagrees, successful couples actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.

5. Solve your Solvable Problems

Start with good manners when tackling your solvable problems. Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings clearly, and express what you want, instead of what you don’t want. Try making statements that start with “I” instead of “you” without being critical or judgmental. Couples who maintain healthy relationships must learn to compromise. Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

6. Overcome Gridlock

Gridlock, or the inability to move through an issue is likely to have an existential base of unexpressed dreams behind each person’s stubborn position. In happy marriages, partners incorporate each other’s goals into their concept of what their marriage is about. These goals can be as concrete as wanting to live in a certain kind of house or intangible, such as wanting to view life as a grand adventure. To get past gridlock the couple does not necessarily need to become a part of each other’s dreams but to honor the dreams of his or her partner.

7. Created Shared Meaning

Ideally, the experience of marriage includes a shared purpose, meaning, family values, and a cultural legacy. Each couple and each family creates its own micro culture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

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