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John Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work - A Summary

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

Dr John Gottman is a leading expert in what makes marriages succeed and fail. After just five minutes in his "Love Lab" he has been able to predict whether married couples will divorce within a year with 91% accuracy. His marriage counseling is also impressive, having only a 20% failure rate compared to the average of around 50%. His approach to learning about marriage is highly empirical, relying on observations of hundreds of visual cues, heart rate, perspiration, and other measurable factors.

In this book, Gottman shares the key results of his work, including seven principles for making marriage work. We summarize his book including:

  • Myths about Why Relationships Fail

  • The Four Horsemen (Signs that a marriage is in trouble)

  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work including exercises.

We tried to cover all the key takeaways, but strongly recommend buying the book.

Here is a link to the Amazon Paperback: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Myths about Why Relationships Fail

The biggest myth is that marriages fail because of poor communication. Specifically, many marriage experts suggest that couples attempt "active listening"; a strategy often used by therapists. Active Listening involves restating what someone has said in order to show you understand and affirm their feelings. However, unlike therapists, the spouse attempting Active Listening is usually the target of their spouses complaints. Gottman points out that unless you happen to be married to the Dalai Lama...your spouse is unlikely to have the patience to actively affirm all your complaints.

Gottman also debunks other myths about why marriages fail such as lack of communication, poor conflict resolution skills, differences in personality, interests or conflict styles, unequal contributions, and affairs. Instead, he argues that at the core of a happy marriage is a strong friendship. All couples have arguments and negative thoughts about the other, but a strong friendship creates an even greater positive energy. Its this positive perspective that helps prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control.

The Four Horsemen

Gottman shares four signs that a marriage is in trouble which he calls the "Four Horsemen", in reference to "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible. They include criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

1. Criticism

Criticism is not the same as offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The difference is that criticism is directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. Couples need to occasionally bring up specific issues, but we should do so in a way that does not come across as an attack on your partner and the core of their character.

Gottman provides an example of criticism:

Complaint: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. You never think of others! You never think of me!”

Criticism is the first horsemen because the emotional pain it creates paves the way for the other far deadlier horsemen to follow.

2. Contempt

Contempt is far worse than criticism because the intention is to harm. Contemptuous communicate is mean and disrespectful. Examples of contemptuous behavior includes mocking with sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, eye-rolling and scoffing. The result is a partner that feels despised and worthless.

Gottman offers this example of contempt:

“You’re ‘tired? Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

Contempt builds over long periods of time by harboring negative feeling about the other. These negative feelings harm both sides of the relationships, increasing the frequency and severity of infectious illness. Of the four horsemen, contempt is the most predictive of divorce.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a common response to criticism in relationships that are suffering. We resort to being defensive when we feel unjustly accused. By acting defensive we make excuses and play the innocent victim in hopes that our partner stop criticizing. But criticism is rarely successful. Excuses signal that we don't appreciate our partners concerns and an unwillingness to take responsibility for our mistakes.

Gottman provides an example of defensiveness:

Question: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”

Defensive response: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact, you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

Appropriate response: “Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. That’s my fault. Let me call them right now.”

The defensive response includes an excuse followed by a reversal of blame implying that it's their partner’s fault. The appropriate response accepts responsibility and acknowledges the perspective of their partner.

Defensiveness doesn't usually work because it is really a way to shift blame to ones partner. This leads to an escalation of conflict instead of resolution. Accepting responsibility, even if one is only partially responsible, acts as a circuit breaker by acknowledging your spouses perspective. This, in turn, makes it easier for your spouse to return the favor.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a common response to contempt. When subjected to repeated contemptuous attacks, a partner may choose to simply gives up, shut down, stop responding, or engage in evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engage in obsessive or distracting behaviors. Stonewalling is the opposite of confrontation. The result is that the underlying issues in the relationship are ignored.

Stonewalling is the last horseman because it is the result of the first three. Years of criticism and contempt can lead a partner to become defensive. But when defensiveness fails, and it almost always fails, a partner may give up and resort to stonewalling.

Years of stonewalling can create a bad habit that is difficult to reverse. It is the result of feeling physiologically flooded that can prevent us from thinking rationally.

Gottman suggest that when we feel like stonewalling it is important to set boundaries. Know when to step away. If you are feeling angry, ask to take a break so you can come back to the discussion with a clear head and the emotional strength to avoid getting defensive.


Gottman suggests that as a first step, couples learn to identify the four horsemen. This opens the door to replacing bad habits with healthy and productive ones.

The 7 Principles for Healthy, Happy Marriages

1. Enhance your love maps

You need to know your spouse in order to love your spouse. A "Love Map" includes the details about your spouse like their friends, favorite music, regrets, fears and hopes, current stresses and challenges. You need to know these and other details in order to know how to love your spouse.

Exercise #1: Love Map Game

Gottman recommends interviewing your spouse to learn more about them. Its very important that you focus only on gathering facts and not become judgmental. He also recommends a "Love Map Game" for couples where each tries to guess the answers to questions about the other. Love Map Game questions are included in the appendix.

Exercise #2: Self-Exploration