I was shocked when I first saw the statistics: most marriage counseling doesn’t work. Some studies put the 9-month relapse rate for troubles who sought counseling at a bleak 70%. (And that’s only 9 months!) The best figures peg it at 50%.
So what’s the problem?
Most marital counseling focuses on conflict resolution. But according to marriage expert John Gottman, one of the most surprising truths about marriage is that most marital conflicts aren’t solvable in the first place.
And Gottman has witnessed a lot of marital spats–it’s what he does. Gottman runs a “Love Lab” in Seattle, which is devoted to studying what makes marriage work. Or not. He routinely observes couples fighting, and he’s become so good at spotting the danger signs of unhappy marriages that he’s able to predict with 91% accuracy if a couple will divorce after watching the couple interact for a mere 5 minutes.
One early danger sign is the harsh startup: the wife (and it’s almost always the wife) starts a conversation with a negative and accusatory tone. This is bad news, and is shortly followed by what Gottman has dubbed “the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Once your relationship enters the stonewalling stage (and 85% of stonewallers are male), statistically, you’re doomed.
But there’s a happy corollary to Gottman’s successful divorce predictions: he knows a successful marriage when he sees one. And happy marriages have a lot in common: first of all, they’re all built on a deep friendship. Gottman observes:
No two marriages are the same, but the more closely I looked at happy marriages the clearer it became that they were alike in seven telltale ways. Happily married couples may not be aware that they follow these Seven Principles, but they all do. Unhappy marriages always come up short in at least one of these seven areas–and usually in many of them.
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work Gottman fleshes out what it is that makes successful marriages succeed–and how to make your own succeed as well. There’s nothing revolutionary about his advice: successful couples know each other well. Each spouse admires the other. They solve their solvable problems. They overcome gridlock. The only revolutionary thing here is that his method of therapy is twice as successful as the norm.
Gottman shows you how to view your own relationship through a marriage counselor’s eyes: How do you talk to your spouse? How do you bring up touchy subjects? Do you make small talk? What’s your tone like?
Gottman says he’s convinced that more marriages can be saved than currently are, if we would just pay attention to the right things in our marriages. I found many of those “right” things to be quite obvious–but I was surprised at others. If you’re concerned about the long-term viability of your marriage, I highly recommend this book as a troubleshooting guide. If your relationship is mostly smooth-sailing, you may enjoy this peek-behind-the-scenes at what makes a good relationship tick.
Gottman has several relationship checklists in the book, and The Gottman Relationship Institute has made two of them available online. You can take the quiz to see how well you know your partner here, or you can evaluate how you seek emotional connection here.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work may not be revolutionary to researchers, but they can be revolutionary for your relationship.
Have you read any of John Gottman’s work? Share your thoughts in comments!
Books mentioned in this post: