The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert
Category: Relationships
Author: John Gottman
Genre: Self-Help
Publisher: Harmony
Published: 5/5/2015
Just as Masters and Johnson were pioneers in the study of human sexuality, so Dr. John Gottman has revolutionized the study of marriage. As a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and the founder and director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute, he has studied the habits of married couples in unprecedented detail over the course of many years.

Book Summary - The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

Key Insights

Have you ever heard someone say that avoiding conflict can destroy marriages? Believe it or not, it doesn’t matter if you talk about everything or avoid conflict completely with your spouse as long as both partners are satisfied with the approach. Shocking, right? How about this one? Have you ever heard: a healthy relationship includes lots of reciprocity? Well, it is also false! Reciprocity doesn’t mean a relationship is healthy. In fact, relationships, where people do things for their partner because they feel happy in the relationship, are significantly more successful than those where couples keep tabs on who’s doing what for who. With so many rumors flying around, it can be hard to find solid advice for building a healthy relationship. Luckily, in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John M. Gottman and Nan Silver discuss the seven principles that make relationships healthy. Learn about these 7 principles below, plus: the four biggest indicators of divorce, what the heck a love map is (and why it matters for your relationship), and how to deal with tricky relationship issues (like sex, money, and the dreaded inlaws).

John M. Gottman is well versed in relationships. He has conducted over forty years of research, working with countless couples to better understand what makes relationships work, and what makes them fall apart. He is so well versed in relationships that he can tell in roughly five minutes whether a couple will be successful (with a 91% success rate at predicting divorce). How does he know if a couple is headed for the rocks? They do these four things. First, they criticize. In the context of an unhealthy relationship, criticism can look like one partner asking the other, “What’s wrong with you” instead of addressing the situation at hand. They also engage in contempt. Contempt in relationships is usually fueled by long-standing negative thoughts that partners feel for each other. Couples who engage in contempt do things like roll their eyes when their partner is talking, mock them, or make hostile jokes. The author warns that contempt can be worse than all of the other horsemen, and is a surefire sign that a couple is in serious trouble. The third is defensiveness: when a person in the relationship is questioned, instead of accepting blame or explaining themselves, they tend to blame the other partner right-back or refuse to examine their part in the conflict. The fourth is stonewalling. This is when a person in the couple completely shuts down during conflicts and shuts out their partner. These four horsemen can end marriages. Oh, speaking of divorce, there are a few stages couples normally go through before that happens. First, they believe their marital problems are horrible. Second, partners feel that discussing issues with each other is pointless. Third, both people in the marriage will begin living lives that are parallel, with no intersection. Finally, for most, loneliness will begin to set in. Yikes! Now that we’ve gone over the bad, let's get into the good stuff. Here’s how you can avoid all of that, and make your relationship work.

Key Points

Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Map

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is a love map? Much like a normal map would show you how to get somewhere, a love map shows you who your partner is and how to love them. The more you know your partner, the more intimacy there is in your relationship, and the happier you will be. Sounds pretty good right? So, to get there, ask your partner important questions (even if you think you already know the answer). As an exercise, you can write down information about your partner: the people in their life, recent important events, upcoming events, current stressors, hopes, and dreams. Intimacy in a relationship isn’t just about understanding your partner, so take time apart to write about yourself too: your goals and successes, where you’ve healed and where you’re hurt, feelings, your most important goal, what legacy you plan to leave behind, and who you would like to grow into. Doing these exercises can lead to a richer understanding of yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

Remember contempt, one of the four horsemen we talked about earlier? It can kill your relationship pretty quickly. The opposite of contempt is fondness and admiration, and instead of killing your relationship, they help it grow. In fact, cultivating fondness and admiration is so important that a relationship that lacks these two components, according to the author, can’t last. If the author came across a couple who struggled in this area in therapy, he would suggest they look to the past for positive times together or positive memories to draw these feelings from. To improve fondness and admiration in your relationship, make a list of all of the ways you appreciate the person you’re with, and then give it to them. You can also discuss the history of your relationship with your partner, with a focus on the history, love, and expectations that brought you two together.

Principle 3: Turn Towards Each Other, and Not Away

Sometimes when we go through difficult times, it can be instinctual to pull away from our partner, or to focus on self-preservation instead of preserving the relationship. To avoid turning away, turn to each other, and make a concerted effort to stay connected. Turning towards your partner can include romantic gestures or gestures that increase your feelings of friendship with your partner like joking with them. Note that these actions can be a lot like a deposit in the bank. Much like more money can cushion financial setbacks, a higher level of connectedness can cushion the blow of difficult conflicts. To improve the connectedness of your relationship, you can start a list of each small thing you do to improve the quality of your relationship, and include the things you didn’t do too. This can lead to a discussion about what actions make your partner feel most cared for and connected to you. You can also practice stress-reducing conversations. These take place when partners take turns talking, do not offer advice (unless it's asked for), genuinely show engagement with what is being said, understanding is communicated, an attitude of “us against them” is fostered, emotions are expressed and emotions are validated.

Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You

Sometimes relationships have an equal sharing of power. And sometimes, they don’t. When a dominant partner refuses to be influenced by the other partner, and won’t share power, it can make things difficult. Roughly 81% of couples where one partner continuously overshadows or talks down to a partner eventually self-destruct. In the couples examined, men were most often the ones who were unwilling to share power, while women would either match or try to deescalate the level of conflict. While women did this, men were more likely to use the tactics of the four horsemen, or escalate the conflict. Partners who use these tactics must learn to compromise or to accept the influence of their partner. They can do this by developing the relational skills they are sorely lacking. Since men are often more oriented towards action and less skilled in navigating relationships, they usually need the most help in this area. If there is a difficult power dynamic at play, like with all issues, it is best if couples discuss it. One exercise to understand the power dynamic in your own relationship is to work with your partner to determine what items you would bring if you were stranded on an island. Afterward, think about who influenced who most often on what items were to be brought.

Principle 5: Solve your Solvable Problems

The good news about relationship problems (because we know there isn’t much) is that sometimes, they’re solvable. But often couples will get so stuck in toxic arguing behaviors that the situation cannot be resolved. Luckily, there are ways to approach conflict besides submitting the age-old adage of “walking a mile in another person shoes” because frankly, that doesn’t work (and the author agrees with us on that). First, when dealing with conflict in relationships, be aware of how you begin the conversation. The mistake that many people make when bringing up issues is that they will start out by being shrill and unpleasant. Instead, start out soft. Don’t begin by blaming your partner, instead, softly explain why something is causing problems in your relationship. It's ok to complain, just don’t blame. Use “I” statements (“I want to have more in our savings account” versus “You are terrible with money, and a monster”), describe to your partner what’s happening, be honest and clear, and be appreciative. Make sure not to let bad feelings store up over time, or they will become exaggerated in your mind. A minor issue will feel a lot bigger if you’ve been stewing about it for a few weeks! Another important thing when in conflict is to soothe yourself and your partner: and watch out for signs you or your partner is getting overwhelmed. Take a break if necessary. Hopefully, if you follow these tips, you’ll get to a place with your partner where you two can negotiate a solution. Finally, remember to be tolerant of your partner. You can’t change them!

Coping with Typical Solvable Problems

Lots of relationships go through the same sorts of stressors. Here’s how to cope.


  • Stress - Make your marriage a place of peaceful escape. You can do this by having regular discussions of what your responsibilities are (so they don’t pile up and add to the stress) and having regular whining sessions where one partner acts as a supportive listener to the other.
  • Inlaws - The person who’s being pulled between their inlaws and their spouse needs to let the toxic inlaws know that they are part of a new family and that things will change (though this doesn’t mean the inlaws are loved any less). Any intrusions or interruptions from inlaws should not be tolerated. Though it will be uncomfortable at first to set this boundary, eventually even the harshest of in-laws will learn to accept it.
  • Money - Note: if serious problems with money go beyond the newlywed stage, this could be a sign of a mismatch between partner’s values, or poor negotiation skills between the partners. Solution? Make your budget together. Talk about what is non-negotiable as far as spending. Write out all of your current expenditures, manage everyday finances and income, plan for who will buy what and how, and plan for your financial future.
  • Sex - Show appreciation and adoration for each other, and accept that these conversations can be tense and uncomfortable. Tips include learning gender anatomy, understanding that your partner’s needs around sex don't determine how attractive desirable you are, be willing to share and listen to fantasies, and be willing, to be honest about your boundaries by letting your partner know when they’ve made you uncomfortable.
  • Housework - Use fairness and teamwork to distribute tasks. Create a who-does-what list to organize chores. The good news is, when the partner who does less housework starts to do more, the couple’s sexual relationship will often improve. The partner who was doing the bulk of the housework (but is now getting help) will also experience a lower surge in stress when arguing with their partner who just started helping. Less arguing and more sex! All good things.
  • Having kids - Work on being friends in your marriage before the kids come along. Watch out for bad advice from others. Let dad play a role in caring for the baby - men can often feel excluded. Make sure to spend time together as a couple even after the baby is born. Finally, make sure the primary caretaker gets a break!


Principle 6: Overcoming Gridlock

Gridlock occurs in relationships when a partner has a fundamental need that their relationship is not addressing. For instance, if a relationship is not in line with one partner's need for freedom, and the other partner doesn’t understand, or worse, doesn’t care about their partner’s ideal, it can create gridlock. Sometimes, people have hidden dreams, or ideals that they didn’t even know they had. Once they feel safe in a relationship, these dreams will rise to the surface. To resolve conflicts created by gridlock, there are a few steps. First, determine what the dream is that is not being addressed. Maybe a wish for stability, maybe more freedom, maybe more spiritual growth with your partner. Then, explain to your partner what your dream is, and then allow them to explain theirs. This is an excellent opportunity for partners to utilize the listening skills we talked about before. Next, find ways that you can compromise on the issue. Though it may remain, it can be a bit more manageable after this exercise.

Principle 7: Create Shared Meaning

Some people are satisfied with relationships that are happy and functional, while others crave a different kind of connection, that is facilitated through creating shared meaning. Creating shared meaning in your relationship is all about what your relationship means to you and your partner: how your togetherness is significant in an emotional or spiritual way. There are a lot of ways you can create this. First, you can develop family rituals. These are things your family does that hold some shared emotional value. It can be anything from having a consistent dinner time to represent the significance of making time for each other, to making sure to say goodnight to every family member before going to sleep. You can use rituals to guide holiday events, family gatherings, occasions of loss, and pretty much any other event you can imagine. Partners can also use symbols that have shared meaning inside of the relationship. This can be anything from a certain flower that symbolizes your first date, to a place that holds significant meaning between you and your partner.

Wait! Before you go, here are some final tips for making your marriage work:


  • Before you say goodbye to your partner in the morning, ask them to tell you about one thing they plan to do that day.
  • At the end of each workday, have a conversation with your partner about how their day went (and use our tips!!).
  • Find a way to show your spouse that you appreciate them.
  • Practice affection - kiss, grab, or hold your spouse!
  • Have a weekly date night!


The Main Take-away

John M. Gottman has conducted over forty years of research, working with countless couples. He is so well versed in relationships that he can tell in roughly five minutes if a couple will divorce. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he pairs with Nan Silver to dispense what he has learned about what makes a marriage work. Read on to learn the four biggest indicators of divorce, what the heck a love map is (and why it matters for your relationship), how to manage conflict, power issues in relationships, and how to deal with tricky relationship issues (like sex, money, and the dreaded inlaws).

About the Author

John Gottman is a psychological researcher and clinician who has done a lot of work on divorce prediction and marriage stability. He is an award-winning speaker, author, Professor of Emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington He and his wife created and manage a relationship company institute called The Gottman Institute. He is known as one of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century. He is the author of over 200 published academic articles and author or co-author of more than 40 books including The New York Times Bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work.

His research shows how couples making up is more important to how couples fought. Marriages become stable over time if couples learn to get along quickly after a fight.

He has developed multiple models, scales, and formulas to predict the stability of marriage and divorce in couples.

He believes that four negative behaviors that predict divorce are criticism of the other, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Happy couples handle conflicts in more positive ways.

He spends a good amount of time on developing therapy aimed at increasing respect, affection, and closeness, and solving conflict. The Gottman Method seeks happy and stable couples.

Critics have criticized him for describing his work as accurately predicting divorce. Rather they say he makes predictions based on statistical models.


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