What Works: The Truth About Happy Marriages

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In couples therapy, I often recommend a book, Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. It's a classic for anyone interested in improving their relationship, married or not. It's written by Dr. John Gottman, the most prolific couples therapy researcher for the past 40 years. In couples therapy, I teach the skills outlined in this book to help my clients with the many difficulties related to conflict styles, communication, and strategies to heal the hurts and problems that often arise in relationships. 

This book is based on decades of empirical research, which is exactly what sets it apart from so many of the good-intentioned but misleading "self help" books written by therapists with only anecdotal experience working with couples. I wrote this blog post series to share with you a brief, cliff-notes style summary for anyone wanting to learn what more about improving their relationship, with or without seeking couples therapy.

Gottman's Marriage Research 

When Gottman began his research, he knew that quality, empirical marital research was desperately needed. We didn't really know what made some relationships work out while others failed. For a long time, the only available data on marriage was based on self reports, which are notoriously flawed

The reason is that people tend to report that they are happy when they're not. For example, abused women will often indicate that they are "happy" on a self report. But when they're interviewed one-on-one, in a setting which they feel safe, they reveal their agony. 

There was also a lack of research on couples over a long-term period. Gottman decided that he needed to do research that was scientifically-based on 1) observing couples, and 2) following up with them over the long-term. 

We therapists tend to recommend to our couples that they use “I” statements, “active listening”, validation and empathy. These are often helpful, but it's not the decisive factor in a relationship's success or failure. Gottman found that only working on communication and conflict resolution in couples therapy does not lead to happier marriages. It's good for every couple to learn, but it's just not enough.

Gottman found that happily married couples may have a lot of conflict, and may not necessarily validate each other when they're angry at each other. Basically, you can fight all the time and still be really happy long-term. What he found is that it's the more decisive factor in happy marriages is the positive interactions that couples have is responsible for overriding the negative ones. 

The "Love Lab" 

In order to learn what makes happy long-term couples, Gottman first created a “love lab” where he and his fellow researchers studied hundreds of couples who agreed to live in an apartment for a weekend. He then followed up with them about their relationship for decades. While the couples lived in the "love lab" apartment, they were videotaped everywhere except the bathroom!

The researchers hooked them up to monitors of various physiological measures, such as blood pressure, sweating, pulse, etc. The great thing about watching a couple for a whole weekend is that they can only "fake it" for a little while, but not very long. And even if they tried to act nicely for the camera, the physiological monitors don't lie--they can tell when you're upset, etc., even when you're not even aware.

The Truth About Happy Marriages

We can tell when couples therapy will not help a relationship survive long term because there are some missing essential ingredients in certain marriages--a form of emotionally intelligence--the dynamic where negative thoughts and feelings (which every person has towards their partner sometimes) are kept from overtaking the positive ones. The good news is, this type of emotional intelligence can be taught to any couple, but only if both parties are willing to do the necessary hard work.

Predicting Divorce

The love lab researchers found a 91% accurate way of predicting divorce. Thanks to this research, we therapists who have been trained in Gottman couples therapy methods can now observe a couple for just 5 minutes and make very successful predictions. 

Divorce Statistics 

  • Over a 40 year period, 67% of first marriages will split up.
  • Half of divorces occur within the first 7 years.
  • People who stay married live 4 years longer.
  • Bad marriages lead to physiological and psychological stresses (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, suicide, violence, psychosis, homicide, substance abuse).
  • Immune system gets suppressed in divorcees, thus making them more likely to get sick, etc.
  • Heightened marital stress also has a negative effect on the children’s physiology and their behaviors; this happens in any conflicted, stressed couple with children, whether they're married or divorced.
  • A peaceful divorce is better than an hostile marriage; however, when parents fight in hostile ways, regardless of whether or not the parents are married or divorced, the children suffer.

What Doesn't Cause Divorce

  1. Personality problems and neuroses. We all have our issues and quirks. You just have to know how you deal with them, and tolerate them in each other.
  2. Not enough common interests. Again, it's about how you do things together.
  3. Lack of Reciprocity. Not true. It's not all about reciprocity, and truthfully, you can never have a completely "equal" relationship. It's the trying to keep a tab on things -- tit for tat – which hurts the relationship. Instead, happy couples just do things for each other because they feel happy about the relationship.
  4. Avoiding conflict. It may not create the healthiest dynamic, but it doesn't ruin a marriage. Avoiding difficult conversations and leaving things “as is” by "putting things under the rug” will minimize the level of intimacy a couple feels, but if both partners are satisfied with this approach, they can lead a happy life together, albeit superficial.
  5. Affairs . Nope. Not true. Affairs are a form of betrayal, yes, and are a valid reason for people to divorce. However, affairs tend to happen because there is a problem in the relationship, and the cheater decides to turn towards a person outside of the relationship rather than dealing with the problem with their partner. The treatable problems in every relationship that lead people towards divorce are also the same treatable problems that lead people into affairs. 
  6. Male biology.  Some people say that men "aren't built for marriage" and "are more likely to cheat" because of their biology, such as testosterone levels. This is a highly judgmental statement about men not based on any real scientific evidence. Testosterone levels and being a man does not cause an affair. Actually, statistics have shown that the more that women have entered the workforce, the more they have had affairs nearly equal to the extent of men.
  7. Gender Differences: It's such a trite saying now -- “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. My eyes start rolling. Oh brother. It is true that some gender differences can potentially contribute to marriage difficulties, but they do not cause them. Men and women tend to share similar desires in terms of what they want to get out of a relationship. According to Gottman's research, 70% of both men and women believe that friendship is the key to satisfying relationship, and  the research shows that sex, romance, and passion is affected by the quality of the friendship.

What Does Make Marriages Work?

Gottman found that marriages are based on deep friendship. You have to know your partner's likes, dislikes, quirks, hopes and dreams. The saying, "to know someone is to love someone" rings true. Knowing your partner better makes you see them in a more positive light more often than in a negative light. 

The Power of Positivity 

How you more often see your partner, positive or negative, is referred to as the “sentiment override” – the pervasive mood of your relationship. You either tend to look at your partner with rose colored love glasses or through a critical lens. This kind of positivity in a relationship isn't about "faking it" or being a naive Pollyanna--it's how you truly see the best in your partner on a regular basis. 

If your relationship is set in a positive sentiment override, you can live more easily with the negative things in your relationship because it's skewed towards the positive. You see your partner in a genuinely positive light and tend to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. You look at their flaws or mistakes as "endearing" or "not a big deal". You feel lucky to be with your partner. You try to regularly repair the normal problems and tensions that arise in your relationship before they get out of hand. 

However, if you're trapped in a negative sentiment override, you interpret anything that happens in your relationship with a defensive or entitled chip on your shoulder. They owe you. Or they aren't good enough. What you used to love about them, you now find annoying. Everything your partner does, you filter in a negative way, and this feeling typically snowballs, becoming increasingly negative over time. When tensions arise, you make things worse, blame your partner, or let problems build up and fester like a wound that hasn't been cleaned properly. But the thing about untreated wounds is that when left untreated, they tend to get infected.

Getting Started, Wherever Your Relationship Is Right Now

Most couples have a “set-point” for positivity and/or negativity, so you may have to work on moving your relationship's set point to a more positive place. Your marriage may have started at a good place, with a high positive set-point, but maybe you didn't know how to maintain it. Resentments and unresolved problems built up, pushing you into a state of negative sentiment override. It takes work to keep your relationship in a state of positive sentiment override, but it can be done through Gottman’s seven principles for making marriage work. 

What Happy Marriages Look Like

Many happy marriages used to be unhappy. The good news is that everyone can learn healthy relationship skills to become a better partner. Gottman found that happily married couples:

  • Have just as much conflict and tension as any other marriage, but they're just better at repairing it before it gets out of hand, and before negative feelings overrides the positive feelings. 
  • Have a common sense of meaning. This means that they support each other’s dreams and aspirations. 
  • Understand that many marital arguments are perpetual and just can't be resolved. They learn to understand each others' differences, rather than trying to keep changing each others’ minds with futility. People are just different, and being a healthy adult means that you have to learn how to live happily with each other despite these differences.

Resources

Following the seven principles can help you move beyond the  typically ineffective conflict styles you may have learned in the past that are sabotaging your relationship by pushing you into negative sentiment override. If you're interested in an audio version of the book, you can listen for free to the full audiobook on youtube. Alternatively, you can buy a hard copy or kindle version on Amazon: