Why Marriages Succeed or Fail By John Gottman Book Summary

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (1994) is an insightful guide to creating successful relationships. It describes the four red flags to look out for in your relationship, and how to repair negative patterns and rediscover what made you fall in love in the first place.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail By John Gottman

Learn how to future-proof your relationship.

Marriage. It usually starts out so well. None of the couples beaming in wedding photos think that they’ll be the ones to get divorced. But, statistically speaking, there’s a 50 percent chance that they will. Not that anyone actually says that in wedding speeches. When it comes to love, we’re eternal optimists.

So what goes wrong? What happens between the time when the lovebirds are uttering sincere vows to always “love and cherish” each other and the moment they’re sitting in a lawyer’s office dividing up the marital property?

That’s what psychologist John Gottman has dedicated his entire career to figuring out: what is it that determines which couples stay together, and which couples don’t. When he was starting out, in the 1970s, psychologists had an enormous range of theories, but no one had done sustained empirical research. Gottman changed that. He devised a special experiment, and invited hundreds of couples to his lab to participate.

In the experiment, the couples are asked to pick something to argue about for 15 minutes. Each word, facial expression, and vocal inflection is filmed and then analyzed microsecond by microsecond by a team of researchers. The couple’s bodily reactions are also recorded. Does her breathing quicken when he mentions his affair? Does his heart start pounding when he gets defensive? Taken together, the 15 minutes are what Gottman describes as an X-ray of a marriage. Using that X-ray, Gottman and his team can predict which couples will divorce within the next three years. Astonishingly, they have a 94 percent accuracy rate!

In these summary, you’ll learn

  • the key signs of a troubled marriage;
  • practical strategies for improving the communication in your relationship; and
  • how to change negative dynamics, no matter how entrenched they are.

Fighting isn’t bad – if it’s balanced by positive interactions.

Imagine you’re in a restaurant looking around at the other tables and trying to identify whose relationship is on the rocks. Do you think it’s the couple yelling at each other like banshees? Or the ones who haven’t said a word all meal?

The truth is, both of those couples might have very stable relationships. Gottman has categorized successful relationships as having three key styles: validatingvolatile, and avoidant.

validating relationship is most obviously functional: couples take time to acknowledge problems in the relationship and respectfully work them out.

volatile one is more passionate. These couples seem to go from 1 to 100, bickering constantly about everything. But they also quickly make up, obviously enjoy each other’s company, and make each other laugh.

The avoidant couple, on the other hand, skirts around problems in the marriage. They air complaints but never tackle them head-on. Nonetheless, even though they don’t find resolution, they respect each other and emphasize what keeps them together, rather than what could tear them apart.

So, successful marriages can come in many different forms. And fighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of Gottman’s most surprising findings is that marriages need conflict – or what he describes as “negativity” – in order to survive. But it’s a delicate balance. An explosive fight needs to be countered by a passionate coming together again. A list of complaints needs to be balanced by affirmation and validation. Otherwise, the couple can get stuck in a negative downward spiral. This spiral is very hard to interrupt because the more negative the interaction, the harder it is to listen to one another generously, or give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Gottman identified four red flags that suggest couples are getting caught in a negative spiral. They are criticismcontemptdefensiveness, and stonewalling. He calls them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Becoming familiar with the horsemen will help you to identify them when they show up in your marriage. To understand them better, we’re going to look at the case study of one marriage that starts out with loving communication, but ends up very estranged after the couple gets visited by one horseman after another, and gets stuck in negative communication patterns.

There are four warning signs that your relationship is in trouble.

The first horseman is one that all of us know very intimately: criticism. To see it in action, let’s turn to our case study.

Eric and Pam had recently gotten married. They were madly in love, but often bickered about money. They were saving up for a house, and had decided to save as much as possible. The problem was, they had entirely different definitions of what that actually meant. Eric thought that eating out less often and biking to work was enough of a sacrifice. Pam took it to another level and started doing supermarket shopping using coupons and denying herself any new clothes.

Consequently, she became angry at what she saw as Eric’s extravagance. She started chiding him each time he brought home a nice bottle of wine or a steak. When he didn’t change his behavior, the tone of her complaints changed. She started saying things like, “You’re so inconsiderate and selfish.” Or, “You never listen to me.” At that moment, complaints about specific behavior had shifted to criticism of who Eric was as a person.

The first horseman had entered their home.

We all criticize each other from time to time. It’s normal. But this kind of criticism can also become entrenched in a relationship, coloring how you interact with your partner, and even how you see them.

Unchecked, criticism can usher in the second apocalyptic horseman: contempt.

Contempt is different from criticism. When you behave contemptuously toward your partner, you not only want to criticize them. You intentionally want to hurt them, or make them suffer. It’s a kind of psychological abuse.

Let’s see how contempt affected Eric and Pam’s relationship. After a year, they were still fighting about money. But by then the fights had escalated. Eric had stopped apologizing for his spending, and had started hurling insults at Pam, calling her a “stingy cheapskate” and saying he’d no idea why he’d married her in the first place. In turn, Pam started feeling disgust toward Eric, and took every opportunity to let him know how disappointing he was to her.

In truth, neither of them could remember why they’d married one another. Their marriage had become a battleground, filled with contempt. The couple had stopped seeing each other in a positive or admiring light. Their judgmental beliefs about each other had hardened, and become the truth.

Contempt is expressed in insults and name-calling, sarcasm or hostile humor. Or even outright mockery. And contempt can be read all over your body. In how you sigh or roll your eyes, or turn away from your partner when they’re talking.

So it’s no surprise that contempt beckons a third horseman into the marriage: defensiveness.

If you’re bombarded by negative judgments, isn’t it a natural reaction to want to defend yourself? Eric and Pam’s marriage had become so hostile that they felt like they had to be on guard with each other all the time. They perceived everything the other person said as an attack, and poured all their energy into defending themselves, and deflecting blame onto the other person. For example, if Pam criticized Eric for getting a speeding ticket, he blamed her for making them late in the first place. There was never any real discussion because they were both so invested in proving that they were in the right.

Imagine a pair of boxers circling each other, arms up, ready to parry every punch. That’s what it’s like to live with constant defensiveness in your relationship. In essence, defensiveness is a refusal to take responsibility. Both parties feel like they’re the victim. Instead of acknowledging that they’ve done something wrong, a defensive partner will make excuses, or “cross-complain,” meaning they meet a partner’s complaint with an even more serious one. Or they’ll simply repeat their own position without acknowledging what the other party has said. Whatever the strategy, defensive communication damages a relationship. Both parties feel unheard, which escalates their frustration. The pattern solidifies, and there’s never a resolution.

This defensive cycle invites the fourth and most dangerous horseman into the relationship: stonewalling.

Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like. One partner – or, worse, both partners – stops engaging completely and becomes like a wall of stone. That’s precisely what happened to Eric and Pam. After years of conflict, Eric reached a point where he stopped even bothering to argue with Pam. Instead, he’d just ignore her, as if she wasn’t talking at all. Or he’d shake his head and leave the room.

Stonewallers sometimes believe that they’re behaving in a neutral way, but in fact this is very provocative behavior. You’re communicating to your partner that they don’t even deserve your attention, even though they’re upset – that’s how unimportant they are. Understandably, this is completely enraging to the ignored partner, who just starts screaming more loudly, leading to even more stonewalling.

Again, we all do this from time to time. A single incidence of stonewalling isn’t a sign that your relationship is in trouble. But if this is your or your partner’s habitual response, then it’s a big red flag. When there’s no engagement, there’s no real communication. And that makes it extremely hard to heal your relationship. It’s like living in a home and sharing a bed with a hostile stranger.

In the experiments he’s run with hundreds of couples, Gottman has watched carefully for these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They’re the surest indicator that the marriage is going to end. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even a marriage that’s stuck in all of these destructive communication mechanisms can be saved. How do you do that? That’s what we’re about to find out.

Mastering three key communication skills can save your marriage.

How do you save a marriage that seems to be stuck in a negative deadlock? Turns out, it’s not as complicated as you may think. Improving how you communicate won’t take years of therapy or some fancy retreat in Bali. In fact, Gottman has isolated three communication skills that will turn your relationship around. Mastering these techniques, he promises, will take you 75 percent of the way to maximizing your marital happiness.

The strategies aren’t designed to stop you arguing. Remember, conflict is good for a relationship. What matters is how you argue. These skills will help you argue better. You’ll be able to express how you’re feeling without defensiveness, and show your partner that you’re listening. 

So, let’s dive in. The first strategy is learning how to regulate your emotions. During an argument, it’s very common to feel flooded. This is a sensation of being completely overwhelmed by emotions. When you’re flooded, your heart rate speeds up, and you produce extra adrenaline. Your body has activated its “fight or flight” response because you feel under attack.

When you’re in this state, you can easily fly off the handle and say something you regret. Or you can get an urge to flee the argument by stonewalling, or storming out. Needless to say, none of those reactions are conducive to good communication.

So the first thing to learn is how to stay calm in the heat of an argument. This’ll help you think clearly and hear what your partner is saying. When you feel yourself getting flooded, or overwhelmed and panicky, immediately take a time out. It’s good to agree on a signal beforehand with your partner, and explain that you’re not trying to avoid the discussion. On the contrary, you want to make sure you’re mentally present for it.

It takes at least 20 minutes for your physiological responses to go back to normal, so make sure that you wait at least that long. In the break, try to avoid mentally rehearsing the argument in your head, and coming up with clever comebacks. That will just keep you stressed. Instead, think calm, validating thoughts like “we’re upset now, but we love each other very much.” To help you calm down, you could meditate or do breathing exercises. Some people like to listen to music, or have a hot bath. It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, as long as it’s something you find relaxing. When you’re ready, you can come back to the discussion in a state where you can actually engage and work toward finding a resolution.

That’s the first skill you need to master. The second is to practice speaking to your partner in a nondefensive way. You’ve already seen how defensiveness can up the ante in an argument, causing both parties to deny responsibility and blame each other. Nondefensiveness does the opposite. It de-escalates conflicts, by making sure both people feel seen and heard.

So, how do you learn to break a defensive pattern? Well, first of all, you need to do some mind training. Months or years of negativity in a marriage will have trained you to think about your partner in a critical way. In fact, you might have completely forgotten why you married them. And yet this is the person you once fell in love with and deeply admired. Most of the time, those deeper positive feelings are still there. They’ve just been covered up by the loud noise of negativity caused by all the fighting.

To uncover them, you need to take some concrete steps to interrupt your negative thoughts. First of all, write a list of all the things you love and admire about your partner. Think of what they contribute to your home and your marriage, and what you’d miss about them if they went away.

And practice actively appreciating who they are and what they do, instead of what they don’t do. For example, if you come home to find they’ve cleaned the kitchen, then appreciate their effort instead of concentrating on the fact that they didn’t scrub the pots. And let them know you appreciate them. Take some time every day to tell them one thing you admire, or are grateful for. For example, you could say “Thanks so much for going to the store, I know how stressed you are at the moment.” Or, “I love that shirt on you.” It doesn’t matter exactly what you say, as long as it’s positive – and genuine. You have to mean it; otherwise it doesn’t work. At first, your partner will be surprised, maybe even suspicious. After all, they’re not used to hearing those kinds of things from you. But if you continue, then they’ll believe you mean it. And this simple practice will yield enormous results. By training your mind to look for the positive, you’ll have less of the stressful thoughts that trigger defensiveness. And by letting your partner know that you appreciate them, you’ll completely disarm their habitual defensiveness.

When you do get into a conflict with your partner, practice listening nondefensively. Watch your body language. Are you standing with your arms crossed, or rolling your eyes? That will give your partner the clear message that you’re not really listening. Relax your body, and remember that even if your partner is angry, you don’t have to be afraid. It’s not a personal attack, it’s a sign that they care deeply about what they’re telling you. Make sure they know you’re listening by making empathetic statements like “I understand,” or just by nodding and making eye contact.

When it’s your turn to speak, weigh up your statements, and think about what effect your words will have. If you have an issue you want to raise, make your complaint as specific as possible. Try using “X, Y, Z” statements, as in “when you do X in situation Y, I feel Z.” Being so specific will help your partner understand exactly what’s bothering you. It will also make them much less defensive than if you made a vague, general criticism. For example, think about how it would feel to hear your partner say “When you forgot to take out the trash last night I was annoyed,” versus “You’re always so irresponsible and forgetful. You never help out around here.” The first statement is about behavior; the second is a judgment on your partner’s personality and general behavior. You can imagine which statement would evoke more defensiveness and anger.

Training yourself to think and listen nondefensively is a process. After all, you’re used to your defensive behavior. It’s had years to solidify. So, don’t expect it to change instantly. But the more you practice, the more you’ll experience how transformational these small changes are.

The third key strategy for improving your communication builds on nondefensive speaking and listening and adds in a vital ingredient: validation.

When you validate your partner, you mirror back what they’re saying, to show you’re actively listening.

The most powerful way to validate someone is to try to genuinely empathize with them. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to imagine what they’re thinking and feeling. Then let them know that you understand.

Sometimes, empathizing with your partner will be hard to do. If your relationship has become very negative, you may have forgotten how to try and see things from their point of view. If that’s the case, then don’t pretend. Validation has to be genuine, or it won’t work. Instead, say something like “I want to understand where you’re coming from, and I’m listening.” Or, “I find that hard to understand, but I’m working on it.” Those statements indicate a genuine commitment to understanding your partner, even if you’re not quite there yet.

Validating what your partner says doesn’t mean you agree with them. It simply shows that you take them seriously, and care about their point of view. This attitude will, in turn, make them much more likely to listen to you.

In conclusion: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

It’s not enough to read about these skills and use them once or twice. The key to really transforming your relationship is to practice these strategies so much that they become as natural to you as the negative patterns once were. This is called overlearning. After all, you’ve had years to practice negative communication patterns. Breaking them will also take lots of practice.

Start small. Practice calming yourself, speaking nondefensively and validating your partner in an ordinary conversation. While you’re driving somewhere, or watching TV together, for example. Practice even if you’re tired and you really don’t feel like doing it. Overlearning means that you become so used to that behavior that it becomes automatic. So even in the heat of an argument, even when you’re feeling flooded and overwhelmed, you’re able to access these tools. And instead of getting stuck in a negative spiral, you’re able to have a meaningful argument – one in which both of you are able to say how you feel and know that your partner gets it. Or at least that they want to get it. An argument that you’re able to resolve.

Marriages are like delicate ecosystems – they need balance. A balance of conflict and harmony. A balance of negativity and positivity. There’s a reason you fell in love with the person you married. That reason may be hard to remember after years of stress and frustration. But it’s there. These tools will interrupt the negative thoughts you have swarming around your head, and allow you to find that love again.

About the Author

John Gottman, Ph.D., is world-renowned for his work on relationship stability and divorce prediction, involving the study of emotions, physiology, and communication. He was recently voted one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the PsychoTherapy Networker publication. His 35 years of breakthrough research on marriage, relationships and parenting has earned him numerous major awards.

John Gottman

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