Mastering Your Marriage


Back in 1969, Darryl studying married couples back in Zanuck, a movie producer for 20th Century Fox, said that “television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Then there was Ken Olsen, president and chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation, who said in a speech given to a 1977 World Future Society meeting in Boston, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

Making predictions is a risky business. People have lost fortunes relying on someone else’s best guess at what things might be like in the future. But people have also lost fortunes because they didn’t believe a prediction. Just like a director from the Decca Recording Company who failed to sign a contract with the Beatles in 1962 because he didn’t like their sound and believed that guitar music was on its way out.

But what if a clinical psychologist could observe you and your spouse in the first years of your marriage and predict with an accuracy rate of more than 90 per cent whether you would stay happily together or separate and divorce?

Click or tick

Dr John Gottman commenced the 1980s. He set up a “Love Lab” with his colleague Robert Levenson to observe newlyweds interacting with each other. But the couples weren’t just being watched—Gottman and Levenson also wired them up to heart-rate machines, bloodflow monitors and instruments that measured how much sweat they produced. They even installed a “jiggle- o-meter” that would measure how much the couples moved around in their chairs! Gottman’s sole aim was to uncover answers to questions such as, Why is marriage so tough at times? Why do some lifelong relationships click while others tick away like a time bomb? And how can you prevent a marriage from going bad or rescue one that already has?

After many years of observing and recording hundreds of couples’ interactions, and then following up with them over a number of years to see whether they stayed together or divorced, Gottman claims he can now answer these questions. In fact, he claims he can predict the success or failure of a marriage after observing a couple interacting for as little as five minutes—with an accuracy rate of 90 per cent!

Gottman discovered that there were clear and observable differences in the way successful and not-so-successful couples managed their marriages, which he called “Masters of Marriage” and “Disasers of Marriage.” The Masters—the happily married couples—weren’t smarter, richer or more psycholog cally astute than the Disasters, “but in their day-to-day lives,” Gotman wrote in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones.” Gottman described these couples’ unions as emotionally intelligent marriages.

The Masters and the Disasters

What do emotionally intelligent couples do successfully that the Disasters don’t seem to achieve? Gottman found that the Masters practised a number of key ways of interacting that kept their marriages not only intact but thriving. Following are three of them.

1. Enhance your “love maps”

Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world—they know each other incredibly well. They regularly update their knowledge of each other’s lives and know each other’s goals in life, worries, hopes, deep- est longings, beliefs and fears. “From knowledge springs not only love but fortitude to weather marital storms. Couples who have detailed “love maps” of each other’s worlds are far better able to cope with the stressful events and conflict,” wrote Gottman.

2. Nurture your fondness and admiration

Masters of Marriage put effort and energy into nurturing their fondness and admiration for each other.

Gottman discovered that fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance. Successful couples might at times feel driven to distraction by their partner’s personality flaws, but they still feel that the person they married is worthy of their honour and respect.

He said that “having a fundamentally positive view of your spouse and your marriage is a powerful buffer when bad times hit.” When couples consistently let each other know how much they are loved and valued, they will be far less likely to have cataclysmic thoughts about separation and divorce each time they have an argument. “Fondness and admiration,” Gottman wrote, “can be fragile unless you remain aware of just how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage.”

Successful couples avoid the temptation to take their partner for granted. They will regularly look for ways to say “I love you,” “You are the best,” “I’m glad I married you” or “You make my heart sing.” Successful couples found that their love for each other and their marital bond were strengthened as they invested in sharing positive statements about each other throughout the day.

3. Turn toward each other

Gottman also noted that successful couples turn toward each other rather than turning away. In every marriage, people periodically make what he calls “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humour or support. When couples respond positively to each other’s bids, they’re turning toward each other.

Bids can happen in the shopping centre, on the way to the movies, at the kitchen table or in the middle of a trip to the supermarket.

A wife might say, “Oh look, those tomatoes are only two dollars a kilo.” If her husband ignores her statement about the tomatoes, he has turned against the bid. If he simply grunts but shows no real interest, he has turned away. But if he responds by showing real interestin the tomatoes and makes a comment about their colour, size or cost, he has turned toward her. By turning toward her and acknowledging her comment, he has made a simple but very important statement about how much he appreciates her as his partner. He has made an investment in their marriage by validating her worth. He has conveyed to her the message that her opinions are important to him. Gottman said that “turning toward is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion and a great sex life.”

Couples who regularly turn toward each other rather than away are depositing emotional savings in their emotional bank accounts and when times get tough, they’re able to draw on these reserves of emotional support. “Because they have stored up all this goodwill, they are better able to make allowances for each other when a conflict arises,” wrote Gottman. “They can maintain a positive sense of each other and their marriage even during hard times.”

Gottman discovered that couples who practised turning toward each other had found the key to a long- lasting romance. For him, romance is not what Hollywood typically portrays—a romantic island getaway or an expensive night out at a restaurant. What drives real romance is the ability to turn toward each other in little ways every day. According to Gottman, “A romantic night out really turns up the heat only when a couple has kept the pilot light burning by staying in touch in the little ways.” It’s about surprising him with messages of love left in various spots around the house. It’s about responding warmly to her fears over a frightening dream she had and letting her know you feel for her rather than laughing at her or ridiculing her.

When you’re at the store and your partner asks you whether there’s enough detergent at home, you dart off and get some “just in case.” You don’t stand in the aisle with a look of boredom on your face. It’s about connecting with your partner with a verbal response, a smile, a hug, anything that will let him or her know that even though the issue or topic may not be that profound or vital to survival, it is still important to you because he or she took the time to share what was on his or her mind.

Gottman’s research in the Love Lab over many years has revealed some key strategies for building a strong and vibrant marriage and his predictions as to which couples will thrive in their marriages have proven to be reliable. Couples should not only believe them; they should also put them into practise!

Avoiding Disaster

Dr John Gottman discovered that the Disasters of Marriage set up cycles of negativity that ended their marriages. They allowed their bad feelings and judgemental thoughts about each other to become overwhelming. The bad practices of Disaster couples included:

  • Starting off harshly. They com- menced discussions in a negative, hurtful tone of voice.
  • Criticism. They often criticised each other and focused on each other’s failures.
  • Contempt. They conveyed their disgust for each other, often by rolling their eyes, sighing or looking away.
  • Defensiveness. They rarely took ownership of the issue that was being discussed.
  • Stonewalling. They looked away from their partner in a discussion and read the paper, watched TV or made a phone call. They were saying to their partner, “I just don’t care about what you’re saying right now.”
  • Failed repair attempts. They failed to put on the brakes when things got heated. Instead, they kept driving the argument so they could win.
  • Bad memories. They interpreted their relationship history in the same way they saw the present— in negative terms.
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