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The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

By Tricia Andor, Licensed Professional Counselor

What makes some marriages fly? What makes others fail? What can I do to make my marriage be one that flies? These are great questions, and are ones many, many counselors, psychologists, and academics have sought to answer.

John Gottman is the current go-to guy regarding marriage research. And THAT – the research part – is a huge draw for me. Lack of research often leaves us to our own assumptions about marriage and what makes for them being healthy, solid, successful.

There are all kinds of different thoughts about what leads to a successful marriage: “compatability”, “sharing the same faith”, “sharing similar interests”, “each adhering to given roles”, “the wife submitting to her husband”, and “communication” are some that I’m aware of. With so many thoughts out there, even amongst therapists, I was interested to learn what Gottman came up with when he actually researched the topic.

After following some of the same couples for decades and utilizing all kinds of data for input – heart rate, blood pressure, sweat, filming and then studying facial muscles (we use very specific muscles on our faces when experiencing different emotions – happiness, contempt, anger, and sadness all utilize their own unique muscle combination) – Gottman distills seven different aspects to marriages that fly.

The book is not flawless, however, and here are a few reasons why:

Abuse, addictions, and infidelity aren’t addressed. This is huge. When a wife is dealing with a husband who hits, threatens, and intimidates her to “establish his control” we’re looking at a whole different animal in the marriage. Similarly, the alcohol-addicted wife who can’t even be counted on to show up to work her scheduled shift or pick up the children from school is not in the position to begin at Gottman’s assumed starting point for marital improvement. Her priority needs to be her own recovery before she will be capable of the commitment, connectedness, resiliency, and risk it takes to improve her marriage (this goes for other addictions as well – drug, pornography, sex, gambling, etc.). When a husband or wife has continually cheated on their spouse, only to offer empty promises that “I’m different now”, Gottman’s principles of “letting your partner influence you”, “nurturing your fondness and admiration for one another”, “creating shared meaning”, etc. seem rather like offering a high-def TV set to someone who’s homeless. It just misses the boat, and in a way that’s kind of like a slap in the face. The homeless person needs to have a home before having use for a really great TV, and a spouse with an unfaithful partner needs the foundation of fidelity before having use for marriage improvement counseling or reading.

The palpable absence of emphasizing individual responsibility, integrity, or virtue. Everything mentioned above calls, ultimately, for individual responsibility. A person who is using violence and threat to control another, or who is living in the grip of addiction, or who is unfaithful to his or her spouse, MUST, at some point admit that no matter what has contributed towards their problem, they and they alone are responsible for their choices, for the hurt they have caused, and for getting help. Period.

It’s interesting, but it seems that Gottman is saying that if one louse marries another louse, all that matters for marital satisfaction is that they paired up with someone who’s lousy-ness matched their own. Clearly the point of the book is identifying the common threads in successful marriages and those in unsuccessful marriages. However, it seems that the neglect of even a head nod to personal responsibility, integrity, morality, virtue, or growth leaves the outcome picture incomplete. His marital research outcome combined with individual responsibility would be far more satisfying big picture to me. He critiques therapists applying individual therapy methods to the neglect of more effective marriage therapy techniques, and instead advocates for marital therapy methods to the neglect of the individual.

One size fits all. A bit of a repeat here, but the information is presented to work for every couple in every situation. A scholarly presentation of any research entails defining the parameter of and limitations to one’s work. I would have liked to have read “the outcome of my research is most applicable to American marriages of people in their thirties and forties who are in a relationship where abuse, addictions, or infidelity is not present” – not that exactly, but something that gave the scope of his research. Instead, he writes, “But now my Seven Principles make the secrets of marital success available to all couples. No matter what the current state of your relationship, following these Seven Principles can lead to dramatic, positive change (italics his).” Hmmm. All couples? Making the secrets of marital success available? Is this a book based on research or am I watching a You-Can-Make-$20,000-A-Month-While-Sitting-At-Home-Infomercial?

I’ve found the holy grail. Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone claiming to have found THE (one and only) KEY for a successful anything involving two humans interacting. As much as I appreciate the research performed by Gottman and colleagues, the tone of his presentation is a bit much. His research is enough to stand on its own. I would have preferred to conclude on my own that “this stuff’s pretty great” rather than hearing Gottman say himself that he’s pretty great.

Long list of caveats, I know. But, I’ll say again that even within the limitations to Gottman’s research, it nonetheless has great value. Thus, in subsequent posts I’ll be delineating what the seven principles are and how to foster them in one’s own marriage.

In the meantime, if you are interested in strengthening your own marriage, feel free contact me at (605) 695-7913 with questions or to schedule an appointment.