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

Updated: Mar 27


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.


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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


Gottman also recommends a "Self-Exploration Exercise" to learn more about yourself. Questions cover past successes, past injuries, emotions you are experiencing and lingering past hurts, your life mission and desired legacy, and inner demons you struggle with. This exercise will help you to provide your partner with a more accurate Love Map. You can do the exercise alone, but afterword you should discuss with your spouse. The structure of the exercise should help build a foundation for lifelong conversations with your spouse about who you are so you can better understand each other. Self-Exploration questions are included in the appendix.


2. Build fondness and admiration for each other


You and your spouse can cultivate greater affection and respect for each other. This helps build a larger emotional bank account to draw upon when you both inevitably make mistakes. Fondness and admiration also make it easier to shrug off criticisms (First Horseman) and attribute them to your spouse having a rough day instead of resorting to defensiveness (Third Horseman).


Gottman recommends several exercises for cultivating greater positive feelings toward your spouse. When done regularly these exercises can make positive feelings a habit, grow your friendship, and reinforce fond memories you share.


Exercise #3: Fondness Phrases


Fondness Phrases are a simple way to cultivate positive feelings.


Examples include:

  • “I’m proud of the way you _____.”

  • "I am impressed that you _____.”

  • “I appreciate the way you _____.”

Add to this short list and fill in the blanks. Keep a copy in your wallet or purse and try to use all of them during the next week.


Exercise #4: Appreciation Adjectives


Appreciation Adjectives can help couples express gratitude. These should be used in addition to a liberal use of "Please" and “Thank you.” Examples of Positive Adjectives include, Loving, Graceful, Thrifty, Strong, Committed, Relaxed, Tender, Powerful, and Sexy. Think of more Positive Adjectives to describe your spouse. Then choose three of your favorites. Then use them to describe a recent example of when your spouse demonstrated those adjectives. Then text or say it to your spouse. To illustrate, here is a template and example:

  • Template: “I am grateful to be married to someone that is so _____. I remembered that the other day when you _____.”

  • Example: “I am grateful to be married to someone that is so Nurturing and Accountable. I remembered that the other day when you were teaching our kids Chinese by having them watch history channel videos and then translating them.”

Gottman recommends sharing three Appreciation Adjective statements each week. This makes reinforcing positive emotions a habit.


Exploring Appreciation Adjectives is another exercise that Gottman recommends. After you and your spouse have picked your favorite adjectives to describe each other...take some time to explore why. For example, why are "Nurturing and Accountable" such important Appreciation Adjective? Is there something about that quality that is particularly valuable to our marriage? In this case I would say that I am particularly appreciative of these qualities because I take on more of a tough love approach to the kids so having a partner that balances me out helps make the most of both approaches.


3. Turn toward each other (instead of away)


Happy marriage come from all the little things that couples do for each other ... not expensive vacations or fancy gifts. Become aware of all the little interactions. Notice when your spouse is reaching out to you and learn to reciprocate. The result will be a turning of mundane day-to-day interactions in gestures of kindness.

Turning is the term Gottman uses to describe how to recognize and reciprocate daily interactions. He recommends being on the lookout for your partner offering a "Bid" to interact so that you can respond by "Turning Toward" them. These terms require some explanation.


A Bid is, "any gesture – verbal or nonverbal – for some sort of positive connection with your partner". Bids can represent a request for conversation, humor, affection, support, or simply for attention. Simple examples might include, “How do I look?” and “Would you help me wash the dishes?”


You should always acknowledge a Bid by physically Turning Toward your partner. This simple act is found to be predictive of a strong marriage. The reason is that by giving your the attention they are requesting you are signaling that they matter to you and are deserving of that attention. Moreover, your partner is more likely to return the favor next time you offer a Bid. This leads to a self-reinforcing positive cycle of affirming each others value.


Failure to Turn Toward your partner can take on many forms but all result in your partner feeling ignored. You can ignore your partner by rolling over in the bed, staring at your phone, or yelling across that you will help with X but then forget.


Failure to Turn Toward is bad, but "Turning Against" is worse. Turning Against includes any violent reaction to the Bid such as mocking or other acts that punish the Bidder. Examples may include: “What do you want?" or "Can’t you see I’m working here!”. Both are damaging because they imply that your spouse if of lesser importance to you than whatever it is that you are doing, and can easily lead to a conflict.


Gottman says that it is far more important to respond to your spouses Bids by Turning Towards than to always be agreeable or enthusiastic. For example, suppose your spouse asks you to do the dishes while you are watching the game. Gottman would suggest physically turning towards your spouse and acknowledging her request with a phrase such as, "Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Yes, I would very much like to help clean up. Would you mind if I waited until half-time?"


In short, the little interactions during the day make a huge difference in the quality of your marriage. Be on the look out for Bids from your partner which may include any words or gestures that imply wanting to interact with you. Make sure you acknowledge Bids by physically Turning Towards your partner and giving them your full attention. You don't always need to agree with your spouse, but you do always want to show them that they are important to you and deserve your time and attention.


4. Let your partner influence you


Gottman argues that you need to let your partner influence you. He specifically calls out men as having the most trouble with this. He says that men need to learn to be influenced by their spouse if they want to have influence. It’s important for women to accept influence too, but Gottman's research suggests that most women already do this.


Accepting influence is not giving up who you are, but rather allowing the needs of your partner to impact your priorities. It's a paradigm shift from a "me" mindset to a "we" mindset in which the needs and goals of your marriage are integrated. This is necessary in order to avoid viewing a marriage as a zero sum game.


Acknowledging the wants and needs of your spouse can be difficult. Their priorities might come across as judgment that you are not doing or giving enough. But your spouse needs to feel listened to and important in order to be happy. Their happiness will in turn help them to support your wants and needs.


Gottman recommends a quiz to determine if you accept your partner’s influence. Here are five questions that seem pretty representative. If you said “true” to 4 or more then you are likely to be accepting of your partner’s influence.

  1. I am interested in my partner’s opinions on issues in our relationship. T/F

  2. I don’t try to convince my partner to see things my way all the time. T/F

  3. I don’t reject my partner’s opinions every time we argue. T/F

  4. I believe my partner has important things to say and value them. T/F

  5. I believe we are partners with equal say in our relationship. T/F

Ultimately, accepting influence is about accepting a paradigm shift in how we view our marriage from "You vs Me" to "We". Gottman argues that the happiest marriages are those where the couple works as a team. To do this you need to listen and be considerate of each other's wants and needs. You need to acknowledge each other’s feelings and respect each other's perspectives. You need to seek common ground when you find disagreement.


5. Solve your solvable problems


Not all problems in a marriage can be solved. Gottman argues that this is yet another myth...that somehow happy marriages are void of reoccurring problems. Instead, he distinguishes between solvable and perpetual unsolvable problems.


Recognize that there are always going to be some differences in preferences or deeply rooted beliefs that are not going to change, or at least are unlikely to change quickly or via confrontation. Simply acknowledging this fact will help reduce stress in a marriage because believing that deeply rooted differences must be resolved is likely to only bring feelings of exhaustion and despair.


Gottman distinguishes between three types of problems:

  1. Solvable problems are situational. For example, they might focus on household chores, how to resolve some immediate problem with the kids, imbalance in physical needs, and issues with extended family. What is solvable will vary from one couple to the next, but what makes them solvable is that they are not caused by some deep rooted difference in beliefs, values or personality type.

  2. Perpetual problems are fundamental differences. They often stem from personality type, life style needs, and beliefs. There is no specific situation causing this type of problem. Instead it is reoccurring.

  3. Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that have been so badly handled that they have created deep divides in the marriage.


Gottman recommends five steps for problem solving. We included the details in the appendix:


  1. Soften Your Start-Up

  2. Learn to Send and Receive Repair Attempts

  3. Soothe Yourself and Each Other

  4. Compromise

  5. Address Emotional Injuries

Mastering these general problem-solving skills will lead you to discover that many of your problems will find their own solutions. Once you can overcome the barriers that have prevented clear communication, difficulties are easier to resolve. But remember: these solutions work only for problems that can be solved. If compromise seems impossible, then the problem you are struggling with is likely perpetual.


6. Manage perpetual problems


Gottman suggests that the key to dealing with unsolvable problems is to establish a dialogue about them. Identify what the problem is. Write it down. Labeling the problem will help to avoid unhelpful attempts to "solve" the problem by suggesting that your spouse simply change who they are.


Unsolvable Perpetual Problems still need to be dealt with. We have found that sometimes creative solutions exist that can help us to avoid these problems even if the underlying cause persists. For example, Joseph is not a planner. This has been a source of contention for Lihong who prefers to have things planned well in advance. In the past, Lihong hoped that Joseph would simply become a planning person. When that didn't happen she felt overwhelmed and under appreciated for doing most of the planning. Our "solution" was to make Lihong the "Planning Captain"which carried with it the power to delegate specific tasks to Joseph such as "Please book a hotel for the week of X". That way, Lihong's desire to plan was fulfilled along with her desire to get help from Joseph.


Sometimes unsolvable problems relate to fundamental differences in what you and your spouse want out of life. These can be a real challenge. Gottman suggests taking time to peal back the layers when confronting Perpetual Problems in order to discover what those dreams are. Once you discover what the underlying dreams are you might find that your dreams are not so different after all. This is why it is so important to be able to talk about these problems.


For example, Lihong has a strong desire to travel. Sometimes she felt as though Joseph didn't support these dreams. He just didn't show much interest when she brought up vacation ideas, and so she didn't push for much traveling. But once she shared how important it was to her she found that Joseph was very supportive. Joseph lacking interest in where to travel actually makes it easier for Lihong because now she can pretty much go wherever she wants knowing that her husband will be equally happy wherever they go...so long as he can bring lots of books.


7. Create shared meaning


The first six principles build the foundation for a strong marriage, but this last principle builds a tower of enrichment. Regardless of your religion, culture, and values...we all need to feel a sense of purpose.


Gottman shows that marriage can be a vessel for creating meaning for one's life. He urges couples (and especially families) to create a "mini-culture" using symbols, rituals, language, roles and identities. Your marriage is your chance to build something valuable together.


A big part of our shared meaning is WEquil ... our family project. Every day we search for people trying to make the world a better place, and then we help them do it. We love including our daughters on our projects to build a relationship app, write an opera empowering women in 3rd world countries, starting a coding school for kids, blogging about the evolution of economics, and building a community of families with shared universal principles. Its' been a real blast so far and the kids seem to be enjoying it too.


Thank you for your interest!

Lihong, Joseph, Sumay and Aila



Appendix


Love Map Game


Questions to answer about your spouse. Each question is worth one point. Whoever gets the most points wins.

  1. What is your favorite hobby or way to relax?

  2. What is your favorite food?

  3. Where do you like to go when you need space to think?

  4. What is your favorite ice cream flavor?

  5. What is something you are currently worried about?

  6. Who is your best friend?

  7. Do you prefer dinner out or dinner at home?

  8. What is your favorite sport?

  9. Have you played the sport?

  10. Where did you live when you were growing up?

  11. What relative or kin did you feel closest to as a child?

  12. If you had a nickname as a child, what was it?

  13. Are you a morning person or a night person?

  14. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?

  15. What is your favorite childhood memory?

  16. Do you prefer hugs, gifts, or when your partner says, “Thank you"?

  17. What is your favorite TV show?

  18. Favorite movie?

  19. What song reminds you of your relationship?

  20. What is your favorite memory of a date, activity, or moment you and your partner shared? 


Self Exploration Exercise


Questions written by Dr. John Gottman to answer the question, "Who Am I?"


My Triumphs and Strivings:

  1. What are some of the proudest moments of your life? What kinds of trying and stressful experiences have you survived in which you felt more powerful, victorious, capable of meeting challenges?

  2. How have these successes shaped our life, changed the way in which you view yourself, your goals, your dreams?

  3. Did your parents show you that they were proud of you for your accomplishments? What about other important figures in your life? How did this affect your experience of feelings of pride in yourself?

  4. Were you shown love and affection in your family? If not, how has this affected your relationships in your adult life?

My Injuries and Healings

  1. What experiences have you had in which you have felt the deepest senses of disappointment, loss, self-doubt, hopelessness, loneliness?

  2. What kinds of deep traumas have you undergone? How have you survived through them? What kinds of changes do you feel in yourself after going through these difficult times in your life?

  3. How did you strengthen and heal yourself? How did you protect yourself? Did you find ways to avoid such experiences in the future?

  4. How do you think that these experiences have affected your relationships? Your relationship with your current partner? What do you want your partner to understand about you and your past injuries?

My Mission and Legacy

  1. What do you feel is the purpose of your life? Its meaning? What do you want to accomplish? What is your greatest struggle?

  2. What kind of a legacy do you want to leave behind when you are gone?

  3. What kinds of significant goals do you still yearn to realize to feel that you have lived a full life?

Who I Want to Become?

  1. Describe the person that you want to become.

  2. What kinds of struggles have you faced in trying to become that person?

  3. What internal demons are you fighting? What demons have you conquered?

  4. What would you most like to change about yourself?

  5. What do you want your life to be in five years?


Five Steps for Problem Solving


Step 1: Soften Your Start-Up


Like a first impression, the starting off the conversation has a lasting impact.


Here are some general strategies:


  • Use “I” (not “You.”): "I-Statements" help to keep comments factual (they are facts about how you see the problem). "You-Statements" are more likely to make your listener feel defensive.

  • Avoid the Four Horsemen.

  • Be gentle and communicate respect. Be polite. 

  • Use “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”

  • Be appreciative. 

  • Recognize what you appreciate in your partner. Don’t let things build up. If you do, it’ll escalate in your mind until you blow up. When you feel yourself getting heated politely ask to take a break so you can calm down.

Here are some example phrases:

  • Take responsibility. “I share some responsibility for this issue…”, "I should have asked sooner"

  • State the problem without blame: “Here’s how I feel…about X (a specific situation)”State a positive need: "It would help me if I had…Y" Note: "Positive" means it is something you do need...not something you don’t need.

  • Describe the problem without judgment or blame: Examples: I think we might be struggling because ..." . "I'm concerned about the house because we are having family over tomorrow". I’m angry because I don't feel respected. I feel like I am doing all the chores by myself. I need help cleaning the yard.


Step 2: Learn to Send and Receive Repair Attempts


Repair Attempts are like circuit breakers. They attempt to cut off the source of the problem before it catches fire. Repair Attempts require both partners to succeed, but before that can happen...someone needs to initiate.


Exercise: Repair Attempts


Gottman recommends a game in which couples sit down together and decide with Repair Attempts they like the best. Here is a list from his website.


Step 3: Soothe Yourself and Each Other


Flooding is a term Gottman uses to describe becoming emotionally overwhelmed by a conflict. If Repair Attempts fail, Gottman recommends one of two actions:

  1. When you feel yourself getting heated politely ask to take a break so you can calm down.

  2. Redirect the conversation to positives of your relationship.

Exercise: Learn to Soothe Each Other


Ask yourself and your partner the following questions:


  • What makes us feel flooded? Give examples.

  • Is there something about the way your partner brings up issues or complaints that makes you feel flooded?

  • Do you hold things in or share? Why?

  • When flooded, what soothes you?

  • How can you better signal when you are feeling flooded to your partner?

Step 4: Compromise


Compromise is a necessary step to solving marital problems. Even if a particular problem seems like one person's fault ... the fact that the problem persists means that they may have trouble solving it on their own. That is why compromise requires accepting the shortcomings of your partner and being aware of your own. Don't expect you or your partner to simply change. Find ways to work together to mitigate each others weaknesses and magnify your strengths.


Avoid the "if only..." trap. When you live with someone you will inevitably see all their ugliness. It is easier to see other peoples flaws than your own. The "if only..." trap is when your hopes for your marriage rest on an implicit ultimatum...that your partner needs to change or you will not be happy. This is inaccurate (except in extreme circumstances like abuse) and serves only to lead you further from the path to true happiness. You need to take responsibility for your own happiness. The truth is even a "perfect" spouse will not make you happy.


Your partner is not your sole mate...your partner is your best friend. They are your daily companion until you die. When you look at marriage from this perspective it is easier to forgive and accept that no person or marriage is perfect.


Compromise in marriage is a path to happiness because through compromise we learn to identify what is important. We also learn more about ourselves because it is harder to hide from our own ugliness when we live with someone else. That helps us to develop humility. With humility we learn to accept the shortcomings of others because we hope they will return the favor.


Step 5: Address Emotional Injuries


Arguments can leave emotional wounds even when a couple resolves an issue. This is perfectly normal and requires talking about or “processing.” Sometimes it’s about how you were fighting, not what you were fighting about. Dr. Gottman has a powerful exercise on page 188 in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that will help heal these emotional injuries.


Mastering these general problem-solving skills will lead you to discover that many of your problems will find their own solutions. Once you can overcome the barriers that have prevented clear communication, difficulties are easier to resolve. But remember: these solutions work only for problems that can be solved. If compromise seems impossible, then the problem you are struggling with is likely perpetual.