Making Marriage Work

Why do some marriages fail while others succeed? Dr. Gottman can predict with 90% accuracy which couples are going to make it -- and which will not. His advice may come too late to save your current marriage, but following the steps outlined below will help to ensure your next relationship is healthy and long-lived.

By John Gottman, Ph.D.
Updated: September 24, 2014
Happy Marriage

There are simple steps you can take to keep your marriage alive and healthy. Here are some ideas, which are described in detail in my book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, that have been gleaned from over 20 years of research with hundreds of couples.

  1. Seek help early. The average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems (and half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). Meaning the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long.
  2. Edit yourself. Couples who avoid saying every angry thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.
  3. Be careful how you "start up" a conversation. Arguments first "start up" because a spouse sometimes escalates the conflict from the get-go by making a dramatic, angry, or upsetting remark in a confrontational tone.
  4. A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, "Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready," a husband who replies, "My plans are set, and I'm not changing them," is a guy in a shaky marriage.
    A husband's ability to be persuaded by his wife is so critical because, research shows, women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband is able to do so as well.
  5. Happy couples have high standards for each other even as newlyweds. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refused to accept hurtful behavior from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the road.
  6. Successful couples know how to exit an argument. Happy couples know how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Successful repair attempts include: gossiping about other people together (very useful); changing the topic to something completely unrelated; throwing in some humor; stroking your partner with a caring remark ("I understand that this is hard for you"); making it clear you're on common ground ("This is our problem"); backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you have to yield to win); and, in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way ("I really appreciate and want to thank you for...")
  7. Focus on the bright side. In a happy marriage, couples make five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship than negative ones: "We laugh a lot" as opposed to "We never have fun." A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make deposits to your emotional bank account.

Quiz: What makes marriages work?

For the last 25 years at the Family Research Lab at the University of Washington, Dr. John Gottman has studied what he calls the "masters and disasters" of marriage. He studies heart-rate, facial expression, and how people talk about their relationship to each other and to other people; from his research, he's able to predict with 90% accuracy which couples are going to make it, and which will not. Test the strength of your marriage in this relationship quiz prepared by Dr. Gottman. Give yourself one point for each "yes" answer to the following statements.

  1. I can name my partner's best friends.
  2. I can tell you what stresses my partner is currently facing.
  3. I know the names of some of the people who have been irritating my partner lately.
  4. I can tell you some of my partner's life dreams.
  5. I can tell you about my partner's basic philosophy of life.
  6. I can list the relatives my partner likes the least.
  7. I feel that my partner knows me pretty well.
  8. When we are apart, I often think fondly of my partner.
  9. I often touch or kiss my partner affectionately.
  10. My partner really respects me.
  11. There is fire and passion in this relationship.
  12. Romance is definitely still part of our relationship.
  13. My partner appreciates the things I do in this relationship.
  14. My partner generally likes my personality.
  15. Our sex life is mostly satisfying.
  16. At the end of the day my partner is glad to see me.
  17. My partner is one of my best friends.
  18. We just love talking to each other.
  19. There is lots of give and take (both people have influence) in our discussions.
  20. My partner listens respectfully, even when we disagree.
  21. My partner is usually a great help as a problem-solver.
  22. We generally mesh well on basic values and goals in life.

Above 12: You have a lot of strength in your relationship. Congratulations!

7 to 12: This is a pivotal time in your relationship. There are many strengths you can build upon, but there are also some weaknesses that need your attention.

6 or fewer yes answers: Your relationship may be in serious trouble. If this scares you, you probably still value the relationship enough to try to get help.

To learn more about what makes marriages work, read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press, 2000) by John Gottman. If you're interested in obtaining more information about Gottman's research, or obtaining educational materials (including a couples workshop video), contact The Gottman Institute.

The Gottman Institute, founded by Drs. John and Julie Gottman and located in Seattle, Washington, provides educational materials and workshops for couples and therapists. For more information, schedules, or materials from Dr. Gottman or The Gottman Institute, call (888) 523-9042 or visit www.gottman.com.

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June 08, 2006

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