The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
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Short Summary Of The Book:
Inside the Seattle Love Lab:
The Truth About
It’s a surprisingly cloudless Seattle morning as newly-weds
Mark and Janice Gordon sit down to breakfast. Outside the
apartment’s picture window, the waters of Mont lake cut a deep-blue
swath, while runners jog and geese waddle along the lakeside park.
Mark and Janice are enjoying the view as they munch on their French
toast and share the Sunday paper. Later Mark will probably switch on
the football game while Janice chats over the phone with her mom in
All seems ordinary enough inside this studio apartment–until
you notice the three video cameras bolted to the wall, the
microphones clipped talk-show style to Mark’s and Janice’s collars,
and the Holter monitors strapped around their chests. Mark and
Janice’s lovely studio with a view is really not their apartment at all.
It’s a laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, where for
sixteen years I have spearheaded the most extensive and innovative
research ever into marriage and divorce.
As part of one of these studies, Mark and Janice (as well as
forty-nine other randomly selected couples) volunteered to stay overnight
in our fabricated apartment, affectionately known as the Love
Lab. Their instructions were to act as naturally as possible, despite my
team of scientists observing them from behind the one-way kitchen
mirror, the cameras recording their every word and facial expression,
and the sensors tracking bodily signs of stress or relaxation, such as
how quickly their hearts pound. (To preserve basic privacy, the
couples were monitored only from nine a.m. to nine P.M. and never
while in the bathroom.) The apartment comes equipped with a foldout
sofa, a working kitchen, a phone, Tv VCR, and CD player.
Couples were told to bring their groceries, their newspapers, their
laptops, needlepoint, hand weights, even their pets-whatever they
would need to experience a typical weekend.
My goal has been nothing more ambitious than to uncover the
truth about marriage–to finally answer the questions that have
puzzled people for so long: Why is marriage so tough at times? Why
do some lifelong relationships click, while others just tick away like a
time bomb? And how can you prevent a marriage from going bad–or
rescue one that already has?
Predicting divorce with 91 percent accuracy
After years of research, I can finally answer these questions. In fact, I am now able to predict whether a couple will stay happily together or lose their way. I can make this prediction after listening to the couple
interact in our Love Lab for as little as five minutes! My accuracy rate in these predictions averages 91 percent over three separate studies. In other words, in 91 percent of the cases where I have predicted that a couple’s marriage would eventually fail or succeed, the time has proven me right. These predictions are not based on my intuition or preconceived notions of what marriage “should” be, but on the data, I’ve accumulated over years of study. At first, you might be tempted to shrug off my research results as just another in a long line of newfangled theories. It’s certainly easy to be cynical when someone tells you they’ve figured out what really makes marriages last and can show you how to rescue or divorce-proof your own. Plenty of people consider themselves to be experts
on marriage–and are more than happy to give you their opinion of
how to form a more perfect union. But that’s the keyword–opinion. Before the breakthroughs my
research provided, point of view was pretty much all that anyone trying to help couples had to go on. And that includes just about every qualified, talented, and well-trained marriage counselor out
there. Usually, a responsible therapist’s approach to helping couples is based on his or her professional training and experience, intuition, family history, perhaps even religious conviction. But the one thing
it’s not based on is hard scientific evidence. Because until now there really hasn’t been any rigorous scientific data about why some marriages succeed and others flop. For all of the attention, my ability to predict divorce has earned me, the most rewarding findings to come out of my studies are the
Seven Principles that will prevent a marriage from breaking up.
Emotionally intelligent marriages
What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, 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. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.
I can predict whether a couple will divorce after
watching and listening to them for just five minutes.
Recently, emotional intelligence has become widely recognized as an important predictor of a child’s success later in life. The more in touch with emotions and the better able a child is to understand and
get along with others, the sunnier that child’s future, whatever his or her academic IQ. The same is true for relationships between spouses. The more emotionally intelligent a couple — the better able they are to understand, honor, and respect each other and their marriage — the
more likely that they will indeed live happily ever after. Just as parents can teach their children emotional intelligence, this is also a
skill that a couple can be taught. As simple as it sounds, it can keep
husband and wife on the positive side of the divorce odds.
Why save your marriage?
Speaking of those odds, the divorce statistics remain dire. The
chance of a first marriage ending in divorce over a forty-year period is
67 percent. Half of all divorces will occur in the first seven years.
Some studies find the divorce rate for second marriages is as
much as 10 percent higher than for first-timers. The chance of getting
divorced remains so high that it makes sense for all married couples–
including those who are currently satisfied with their relationship–to
put extra effort into their marriages to keep them strong.
One of the saddest reasons a marriage dies is that neither
spouse recognizes its value until it is too late. Only after the papers
have been signed, the furniture divided, and separate apartments
rented do the exes realize how much they really gave up when they
gave up on each other. Too often a good marriage is taken for granted
rather than given the nurturing and respect it deserves and
desperately needs. Some people may think that getting divorced or
languishing in an unhappy marriage is no big deal–they may even
consider it trendy. But there’s now plenty of evidence documenting
just how harmful this can be for all involved.
Thanks to the work of researchers like Lois Verbrugge and
James House, both of the University of Michigan, we now know that
an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by
roughly 35 percent and even shorten your life by an average of four
years. The flip side: People who are happily married live longer,
healthier lives than either divorced people or those who are
unhappily married. Scientists know for certain that these differences
exist, but we are not yet sure why.
Part of the answer may simply be that in an unhappy marriage
people experience chronic, diffuse physiological arousal—in other
words, they feel physically stressed and usually emotionally stressed
as well. This puts added wear and tear on the body and mind, which
can present itself in any number of physical ailments, including high
blood pressure and heart disease, and in a host of psychological ones,
including anxiety, depression, suicide, violence, psychosis, homicide,
and substance abuse.
Not surprisingly, happily married couples have a far lower rate
of such maladies. They also tend to be more health-conscious than
others.Researchers theorize that this is because spouses keep after
each other to have regular checkups, take medicine, eat nutritiously,
and so on.
People who stay married live four years
longer than people who don’t.
Recently my laboratory uncovered some exciting, preliminary
evidence that a good marriage may also keep you healthier by
directly benefiting your immune system, which spearheads the
body’s defenses against illness. Researchers have known for about a
the decade that divorce can depress the immune system’s function.
Theoretically this lowering in the system’s ability to fight foreign
invaders could leave you open to more infectious diseases and
cancers. Now we have found that the opposite may also be true. Not
only do happily married people avoid this drop in immune function,
but their immune systems may even be getting an extra boost.
When we tested the immune system responses of the fifty
couples who stayed overnight in the Love Lab, we found a striking
difference between those who were very satisfied with their
marriages and those whose emotional response to each other was
neutral or who were unhappy. Specifically, we used blood samples
from each subject to test the response of certain of their white blood
cells-the immune system’s major defense weapons. In general,
happily married men and women showed a greater proliferation of
these white blood cells when exposed to foreign invaders than did the
We also tested the effectiveness of another immune system
warriors—the natural killer cells, which, true to their name, destroy
body cells that have been damaged or altered (such as infected or
cancerous ones) and are known to limit the growth of tumor cells.
Again, subjects who were satisfied with their marriage had more
effective natural killer cells than did the others.
It will take more study before scientists can confirm that this
boost in the immune system is one of the mechanisms by which a
good marriage benefits your health and longevity. But what’s most
important is that we know for certain that a good marriage does. In
fact, I often think that if fitness buffs spent just 10 percent of their
weekly workout time–say, twenty minutes a day–working on their
marriage instead of their bodies, they would get three times the
health benefits derive from climbing the Stair-Master!
When a marriage goes sour, husband and wife are not the only
ones to suffer–the children do, too. In a study, I conducted of sixty-three
preschoolers, those being raised in homes where there was great
marital hostility had chronically elevated levels of stress hormones
compared with the other children studied. We don’t know what the
long-term repercussions of this stress will be for their health. But we
do know that this biological indication of extreme stress was echoed
in their behavior. We followed them through age fifteen and found
that, compared with other children their age, these kids suffered far
more from truancy, depression, peer rejection, behavioral problems
(especially aggression), low achievement at school, and even school
One important message of these findings is that it is not wise to
stay in a bad marriage for the sake of your children. It is clearly
harmful to raise kids in a home that is subsumed by hostility between
the parents. A peaceful divorce is better than a warlike marriage.
Unfortunately, divorces are rarely peaceful. The mutual hostility
between the parents usually continues after the breakup. For that
reason, children of divorce often fare just as poorly as those caught in
the crossfire of a miserable marriage.
Innovative research, revolutionary findings
When it comes to saving a marriage, the stakes are high for everybody
in the family. And yet despite the documented importance of
marital satisfaction, the amount of scientifically sound research into
keeping marriages stable and happy is shockingly small. When I first
began researching marriage in 1972, you could probably have held all
of the “good” scientific data on marriage in one hand. By “good” I
mean findings that were collected using scientific methods as
rigorous as those used by medical science. For example, many studies
of marital happiness were conducted solely by having husbands and
wives fill out questionnaires. This approach is called the self-report
method, and although it has its uses, it is also quite limited. How do
you know a wife is happy just because she checks the “happy” box on
some form? Women in physically abusive relationships, for example,
score very high on questionnaires about marital satisfaction. Only if
the woman feels safe and is interviewed one on one does she reveal
To address this paucity of good research, my colleagues and I
have supplemented traditional approaches to studying marriage with
many innovative, more extensive methods. We are now following
seven hundred couples in seven different studies. We have not just
studied newlyweds but long-term couples who were first assessed
while in their forties or sixties. We have also studied couples just
becoming parents and couples interacting with their babies, their
preschoolers, and their teenagers.
As part of this research, I have interviewed couples about the
history of their marriage, their philosophy about marriage, how they
viewed their parents’ marriages. I have videotaped them talking to
each other about how their day went, discussing areas of continuing
disagreement in their marriage, and also conversing about joyful
topics. And to get a physiological read of how stressed or relaxed
they were feeling, I measured their heart rate, blood flow, sweat
output, blood pressure, and immune function moment by moment. In
all of these studies, I’d play back the tapes to the couples and ask
them for an insiders’ perspective of what they were thinking and
feeling when, say, their heart rate or blood pressure suddenly surged
during a marital discussion. And I’ve kept track of the couples,
checking in with them at least every year to see how their relationship
So far my colleagues and I are the only researchers to conduct
such an exhaustive observation and analysis of married couples. Our
data offer the first real glimpse of the inner workings—the anatomy–
of marriage. The results of these studies, not my own opinions, form
the basis of my Seven Principles for making marriage work. These
principles, in turn, are the cornerstones of a remarkably effective
short-term therapy for couples that I have developed along with my
wife, clinical psychologist Julie Gottman, Ph.D. This therapy, and
some briefer workshops that follow the same principles, are intended
for couples who find that their marriage is in trouble or just want to
ensure it stays strong.
Our approach contrasts dramatically with the standard one
offered by most marriage therapists. This is because as my research
began to uncover the true story of marriage, I had to throw out some
long-hallowed beliefs about marriage and divorce.
Why most marriage therapy fails
If you’ve had or are having troubles in your relationship, you’ve
probably gotten lots of advice. Sometimes it seems like everybody
who’s ever been married or knows anyone who’s ever been married
thinks he holds the secret to guaranteeing endless love. But most of
these notions, whether intoned by a psychologist on TV or by a wise
manicurist at the local mall, are wrong. Many such theories, even
those initially espoused by talented theorists, have been long
discredited–or deserve to be. But they have become so firmly
entrenched in the popular culture that you’d never know it.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that communication–and
more specifically learning to resolve your conflicts — is the royal
road to romance and enduring, happy marriage. Whatever a
marriage therapist’s theoretical orientation, whether you opt for short
term therapy, long-term therapy, or a three-minute radio consultation
with your local Frasier, the message you’ll get is pretty uniform:
Learn to communicate better. The sweeping popularity of this
the approach is easy to understand. When most couples find themselves
in a conflict (whether it gets played out as a short spat, an all-out
screaming match or stony silence), they each gird themselves to win
the fight. They become so focused on how hurt they feel, on proving
that they’re right and their spouse is wrong, or on keeping up a cold
shoulder, that the lines of communication between the two maybe
overcome by static or shut down altogether. So it seems to make sense
that calmly and lovingly listening to each other’s perspective would
lead couples to find compromise solutions and regain their marital
The most common technique recommended for resolving
the conflict–used in one guise or another by most marital therapists–is
called active listening. For example, a therapist might urge you to try
some form of the listener-speaker exchange. Let’s say Judy is upset
that Bob works late most nights. The therapist asks Judy to state her
complaints as “I” statements that focus on what she’s feeling rather
than hurling accusations at Bob. Judy will say, “I feel lonely and
overwhelmed when I’m home alone with the kids night after night
while you’re working late,” rather than, “It’s so selfish of you to
always work late and expect me to take care of the kids by myself.”
Then Bob is asked to paraphrase both the content and the
feelings of Judy’s message, and to check with her if he’s got it right.
(This shows he is actively listening to her.) He is also asked to
validate her feelings–to let her know he considers them legitimate,
that he respects and empathizes with her even if he doesn’t share her
perspective. He might say: “It must be hard for you to watch the kids
by yourself when I’m working late.” Bob is being asked to suspend
judgment, not argue for his point of view, and to respond non
defensively. “I hear you” is a common active-listening buzz word.
Thanks to Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain” may now be the most
By forcing couples to see their differences from each other’s
perspective, problem-solving is supposed to take place without anger.
This approach is often recommended whatever the specific issue—
whether your conflict concerns the size of your grocery bill or major
differences in your lifelong goals. Conflict resolution is touted not
only as a cure-all for troubled marriages but as a tonic that can
prevent good marriages from faltering.
Where did this approach come from? The pioneers of marital
therapy adapted it from techniques used by the renowned
psychotherapist Carl Rogers. For individual psychotherapy, Rogerian
psychotherapy had its heyday in the 1960s and is still practiced in
varying degrees by psychotherapists today. His approach entails
responding in a non-judgmental and accepting manner to all feelings
and thoughts the patient expresses. For example, if the patient says, “I
just hate my wife, she’s such a nagging bitch,” the therapist nods and
says something like “I hear you saying that your wife nags you and
you hate that.” The goal is to create an empathetic environment so the
patient feels safe exploring his inner thoughts and emotions and
confiding in the therapist.
Since marriage is also, ideally, a relationship in which people
feel safe being themselves, it might seem to make sense to train
couples to practice this sort of unconditional understanding. Conflict
resolution is certainly easier if each party expresses empathy for the
The problem is that it doesn’t work. A Munich-based marital
therapy study conducted by Dr. Kurt Hahlweg and associates found
that even after employing active listening techniques the typical
the couple was still distressed. Those few couples who did benefit
relapsed within a year.
The wide range of marital therapies based on conflict resolution
share a very high relapse rate. In fact, the best of this type of marital
therapy, conducted by Neil Jacob son, Ph.D.” of the University of
Washington has only a 35 percent success rate. In other words, his
own studies show that only 35 percent of couples see a meaningful
improvement in their marriages as a result of the therapy. A year
later, less than half of that group–or just 18 percent of all couples
who entered therapy– retain these benefits. When Consumer Reports
surveyed a large sample of its members on their experience with all
kinds of psychotherapists, most got the very high customer satisfaction
marks–except for marital therapists, who got very poor ratings. This
survey may not qualify as rigorous scientific research, but it confirms
what most professionals in this field know: In the long run, current
approaches to marital therapy do not benefit the majority of couples.
When you really think about it, it’s not difficult to see why
active listening so often fails. Bob might do his best to listen
thoughtfully to Judy’s complaints. But he is not a therapist listening to
a patient whine about a third party. The person his wife is trashing
behind all of those “I” statements is him. There are some people who
can be magnanimous in the face of such criticism–the Dalai Lama
comes to mind. But it’s unlikely that you or your spouse is married to
one of them. (Even in Rogerian therapy, when the client starts
complaining about the therapist, the therapist switches from empathy
to other therapeutic approaches.) Active listening asks couples to
perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship
can barely walk.
If you think validation and active listening will make conflict
resolution easier for you and your spouse, by all means use it. There
are circumstances where it can certainly come in handy. But here’s the
catch: Even if it does make your fights “better” or less frequent, it
alone cannot save your marriage.
Even happily married couples can have
screaming matches–loud arguments
don’t necessarily harm a marriage.
After studying some 650 couples and tracking the fate of their
marriages for up to fourteen years, we now understand that this
approach to counseling doesn’t work, not just because it’s nearly
impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because
successful conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages succeed.
One of the most startling findings of our research is that most couples
who have maintained happy marriages rarely do anything that even
partly resembles active listening when they’re upset.
Consider one couple we studied, Belle and Charlie. After more
than forty-five years of marriage, Belle informed Charlie that she
wished they had never had children. This clearly rankled him. What
followed was a conversation that broke all the active listening rules.
This discussion doesn’t include a lot of validation or empathy they
both jump right in, arguing their point.
Charlie: You think you would have been better off if I had backed
you in not having children?
Belle: Having children was such an insult to me, Charlie.
Charlie: No. Hold on a minute.
Belle: To reduce me to such a level!
Charlie: I’m not redu-
Belle: I wanted so much to share a life with you. Instead, I ended up a
Charlie: Now wait a minute, hold on. I don’t think not having
children is that simple. I think that there’s a lot biologically that you’re
Belle: Look at all the wonderful marriages that have been childless.
Belle: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor!
Charlie (deep sigh): Please!
Belle: He was the king! He married a valuable woman. They had a
very happy marriage.
Charlie: I don’t think that’s a fair example. First of all, she was forty.
That makes a difference.
Belle: She never had children. And he fell in love with her not
because she was going to reproduce.
Charlie: But the fact is, Belle, that there is a real strong biological urge
to have children.
Belle: That’s an insult to think that I’m regulated by biology.
Charlie: I can’t help it!
Belle: Well, anyway, I think we would have had a ball without
Charlie: Well, I think we had a ball with the kids, too.
Belle: I didn’t have that much of a ball.
Charlie and Belle may not sound like June and Ward Cleaver,
but they have been happily married for over forty-five years. They
both say they are extremely satisfied with their marriage and devoted
to each other.
No doubt they have been having similar in-your-face
discussions for years. They don’t end off angrily, either. They go on to
discuss why Belle feels this way about motherhood. Her major regret
is that she wasn’t more available to spend time with Charlie. She
wishes she hadn’t always been so cranky and tired. There’s a lot of
affection and laughter as they hash this out. Neither of their heart
rates or blood pressures indicate distress. The bottom line of what
Belle is saying is that she loves Charlie so much, she wishes she had
had more time with him. Clearly, there’s something very positive
going on between them that overrides their argumentative style.
Whatever that “something” is, marriage counseling, with its emphasis
on “good” fighting, doesn’t begin to help other couples tap into it.
Exploding more myths about marriage
The notion that you can save your marriage just by learning to
communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held
misconception about happy marriages–but it’s hardly the only one.
Over the years I’ve found many other myths that are not only false
but potentially destructive to a marriage because they can lead
couples down the wrong path or, worse, convince them that their
marriage is a hopeless case. Among these common myths:
Neuroses or personality problems ruin marriages. You might
assume that people with hang-ups would be ill suited for marriage.
But research has found only the weakest connection between run-ofthe-
mill neuroses and failing at love. The reason: We all have our
crazy buttons—issues we’re not totally rational about. But they don’t
necessarily interfere with marriage. The key to a happy marriage isn’t
having a “normal” personality but finding someone with whom you
mesh. For example, Sam has a problem dealing with authority–he
hates having a boss. If he were married to an authoritarian woman
who tended to give commands and tried to tell him what to do, the
result would be disastrous. But instead he is married to Megan, who
treats him like a partner and doesn’t try to boss him around. They’ve
been happily married for ten years.
Contrast them with another couple who do run into marital
problems. Jill has a deep-seated fear of abandonment due to her
parents’ divorcing when she was very young. Her husband, Wayne,
who is truly devoted to her, is a debonair ladies’ man who flirts
shamelessly at parties. When she complains, he points out that he is
100 percent faithful to her and insists she lighten up and let him enjoy
this harmless pleasure. But the threat Jill perceives from his
flirtations–and his unwillingness to stop–drives them to separate and
The point is that neuroses don’t have to ruin a marriage. What
matters is how you deal with them. If you can accommodate each
other’s strange side and handle it with caring, affection, and respect,
your marriage can thrive.
Common interests keep you together. That all depends on how
you interact while pursuing those interests. One husband and wife
who love kayaking may glide smoothly down the water, laughing,
talking, and concentrating together. Their love of kayaking enriches
and deepens their fondness and interest in each other.
Another couple may equally share a love of kayaking but not
the same mutual respect. Their travels may be punctuated with
“That’s not the way to do a J-stroke, you idiot!” or irritated silences.
It’s hard to see how pursuing their common interest is in the best
interest of their marriage.
You scratch my back and… Some researchers believe that what
distinguishes good marriages from failing ones is that in good
marriages spouses respond in kind to positive overtures from the
other. In other words, they meet a smile with a smile, a kiss with a
kiss. When one helps the other with a chore, the other intentionally
reciprocates, and so on. In essence, the couple function with an
unwritten agreement to offer recompense for each kind word or deed.
In bad marriages this contract has broken down, so that anger and
resentment fill the air. By making the floundering couple aware of the
need for some such “contract,” the theory goes, their interactions
could be repaired.
But it’s really the unhappy marriage where this quid pro quo
operates, where each feels the need to keep a running tally of who has
done what for whom. Happy spouses do not keep tabs on whether
their mate is washing the dishes as a payback because they cooked
dinner. They just do it because they generally feel positive about their
spouse and their relationship. If you find yourself keeping score
about some issue with your spouse, that suggests it’s an area of
tension in your marriage.
Avoiding conflict will ruin your marriage. “Tell it like it is” has
become a pervasive attitude. But honesty is not best for all marriages.
Plenty of lifelong relationships happily survive even though the
couple tend to shove things under the rug. Take Allan and Betty.
When Allan gets annoyed at Betty he turns on ESPN. When Betty is
upset with him, she heads for the mall. Then they regroup and go on
as if nothing happened. Never in forty years of marriage have they sat
down to have a “dialogue” about their relationship. Neither of them
could tell you what a “validating” statement is. Yet they will tell you
honestly that they are both very satisfied with their marriage and that
they love each other deeply, hold the same values, love to fish and
travel together, and wish for their children as happy a married life as
they have shared.
Couples simply have different styles of conflict. Some avoid
fights at all costs, some fight a lot, and some are able to “talk out” their
differences and find a compromise without ever raising their voices.
No one style is necessarily better than the other–as long as the style
works for both people.
Couples can run into trouble if one partner always wants to talk
out a conflict while the other just wants to watch the playoffs.
Affairs are the root cause of divorce. In most cases it’s the other
way around. Problems in the marriage that send the couple on a
trajectory to divorce also send one (or both) of them looking for
intimate connection outside the marriage. Most marital therapists
who write about extramarital affairs find that these trysts are usually
not about sex but about seeking friendship, support, understanding,
respect, attention, caring, and concern–the kind of things that
marriage is supposed to offer. In probably the most reliable survey
ever done on divorce, by Lynn Gigy, Ph.D.” and Joan Kelly, Ph.D.”
from the Divorce Mediation Project in Corte Madera, California, 80
percent of divorced men and women said their marriage broke up
because they gradually grew apart and lost a sense of closeness, or
because they did not feel loved and appreciated. Only 20 to 27 percent
of couples said an extramarital affair was even partially to blame.
Men are not biologically “built” for marriage. A corollary to
the notion that affairs cause divorce, this theory holds that men are
philanderers by nature and are therefore ill-suited for monogamy. It’s
supposedly the law of the jungle–the male of the species looks to
create as many offspring as possible, so his allegiance to anyone mate
remains superficial. Meanwhile the female, given the large task of
tending to the young, looks for a single mate who will provide well
for her and her children.
But whatever natural laws other species follow, among humans
the frequency of extramarital affairs does not depend on gender so
much as on opportunity. Now that so many women work outside the
home, the rate of extramarital affairs by women has skyrocketed.
According to Annette Lawson, Ph.D. of the University of California,
Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, since women have
entered the workplace in massive numbers, the number of
extramarital affairs of young women now slightly exceeds those of
Men and women are from different planets. According to a
rash of best-selling books, men and women can’t get along because
males are “from Mars” and females “from Venus.” However,
successful marriages also comprise respective “aliens.” Gender
differences may contribute to marital problems, but they don’t cause
The determining factor in he whether wives feel
satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their
marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the
couple’s friendship. For men, the determining
factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s
friendship. So men and women come from the
same planet after all.
I could go on and on. The point is not just that there are plenty
of myths out there about marriage, but that the false information they
offer can be disheartening to couples who are desperately trying to
make their marriage work. If these myths imply one thing, it’s that
marriage is an extremely complex, imposing institution that most of
us just aren’t good enough for. I’m not suggesting that marriage is
easy. We all know it takes courage, determination, and resiliency to
maintain a long-lasting relationship. But once you understand what
really makes a marriage tick, saving or safeguarding your own will
What does make marriage work?
The advice I used to give couples earlier in my career was pretty
much what you’d hear from virtually any marital therapist–the same
old pointers about conflict resolution and communication skills. But
after looking squarely at my own data, I had to face the harsh facts:
Getting couples to disagree more “nicely” might reduce their stress
levels while they argued, but frequently it wasn’t enough to pump life
back into their marriages.
The right course for these couples became clear only after I
analyzed the interactions of couples whose marriages sailed smoothly
through troubled waters. Why was it that these marriages worked so
well? Were these couples more intelligent, more stable, or simply
more fortunate than the others? Could whatever they had be taught
to other couples?
It soon became apparent that these happy marriages were never
perfect unions. Some couples who said they were very satisfied with
each other still had significant differences in temperament, in
interests, in family values. Conflict was not infrequent. They argued,
just as the unhappy couples did, over money, jobs, kids,
housekeeping, sex, and in-laws. The mystery was how they so
adroitly navigated their way through these difficulties and kept their
marriages happy and stable.
It took studying hundreds of couples until I finally uncovered
the secrets of these emotionally intelligent marriages. No two
marriages are the same, but the more closely I looked at happy
marriages the clearer it became that they were alike in seven telltale
ways. Happily married couples may not be aware that they follow
these Seven Principles, but they all do. Unhappy marriages always
came up short in at least one of these seven areas–and usually in
many of them. By mastering these Seven Principles, you can ensure
that your own marriage will thrive. You’ll learn to identify which of
these components are weak spots, or potential weak spots, in your
marriage, and to focus your attention where your marriage most
needs it. In the chapters ahead we’ll fill you in on all the secrets to
maintaining (or regaining) a happy marriage, and hold your hand as
you apply the techniques to your own marriage.
The evidence, please
How can I be so confident that doing this will benefit your marriage?
Because unlike other approaches to helping couples, mine is based on
knowing what makes marriages succeed rather than on what makes
them fail. I don’t have to guess anymore about why some couples stay
so happily married. I know why I have documented just what makes
happily married couples different from everybody else.
I am confident that the Seven Principles work not just because
my data suggest they should, but because the hundreds of couples
who attended our workshops so far have confirmed to me that they
do. Almost all of these couples came to us because their marriage was
in deep distress–some were on the verge of divorce. Many were
skeptical that a simple two-day workshop based on the Seven
Principles could turn their relationship around. Fortunately their
skepticism was unfounded. Our findings indicate that these
workshops have made a profound and powerful difference in these
Couples who attend my workshop have a
relapse rate that’s about half that from
standard marital therapy.
When it comes to judging the effectiveness of marital therapy,
nine months seems to be the magic number. Usually by then the
couples who are going to relapse after therapy already have. Those
who retain the benefits of therapy through the first nine months tend
to continue them long-term. So we put our workshops to the test by
doing an extensive nine-month follow-up of 640 couples. I’m happy to
report an astoundingly low relapse rate. The nationwide relapse rate
for standard marital therapy is 30 to 50 percent. Our rate is 20 percent.
We found that at the beginning of our workshops, 27 percent of
couples were at very high risk for divorce. At our three-month followup
that proportion was 6.7 percent and at nine months it was 0
percent. But even couples who were not at high risk for divorce were
significantly helped by the workshops.
Friendship versus fighting
At the heart of my program is the simple truth that happy marriages
are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for
and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to each
other intimately–they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes,
personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard
for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but
in little ways day in and day out.
Take the case of hardworking Nathaniel, who runs his own
import business and works very long hours. In another marriage, his
schedule might be a major liability. But he and his wife Olivia have
found ways to stay connected. They talk frequently on the phone
during the day. When she has a doctor’s appointment, he remembers
to call to see how it went. When he has a meeting with an important
client, she’ll check in to see how it fared. When they have chicken for
dinner, she gives him both drumsticks because she knows he likes
them best. When he makes blueberry pancakes for the kids Saturday
morning, he’ll leave the blueberries out of hers because he knows she
doesn’t like them. Although he’s not religious, he accompanies her to
church each Sunday because it’s important to her. And although she’s
not crazy about spending a lot of time with their relatives, she has
pursued a friendship with Nathaniel’s mother and sisters because
family matters so much to him.
If all of this sounds humdrum and unromantic, it’s anything
but. Through small but important ways Olivia and Nathaniel are
maintaining the friendship that is the foundation of their love. As a
result they have a marriage that is far more passionate than do
couples who punctuate their lives together with romantic vacations
and lavish anniversary gifts but have fallen out of touch in their daily
Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best
protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse. Because
Nathaniel and Olivia have kept their friendship strong despite the
inevitable disagreements and irritations of married life, they are
experiencing what is known technically as “positive sentiment
override.” This means that their positive thoughts about each other
and their marriage are so pervasive that they tend to supersede their
negative feelings. It takes a much more significant conflict for them to
lose their equilibrium as a couple than it would otherwise. Their
positivity causes them to feel optimistic about each other and their
marriage, to assume positive things about their lives together, and to
give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Here’s a simple example. Olivia and Nathaniel are getting ready
to host a dinner party. Nathaniel calls, “Where are the napkins?” and
Olivia yells back edgily, “They’re in the cupboard!” Because their
marriage is founded on a firm friendship, most likely he’ll shrug off
her tone of voice and focus instead on the information Olivia has
given him–that the napkins are in the cupboard. He attributes her
anger to some fleeting problem that has nothing to do with him-like
she can’t get the cork out of the wine bottle. However, if their
marriage were troubled, he would be more likely to sulk or yell back,
“Never mind, you get them!”
One way of looking at this positive override is similar to the “set
point” approach to weight loss. According to this popular theory, the
body has a “set” weight that it tries to maintain. Thanks to
homeostasis, no matter how much or how little you diet, your body
has a strong tendency to hover at that weight. Only by resetting your
body’s metabolism (say, by exercising regularly) can dieting really
help you lose pounds for good. In a marriage, positivity and
negativity operate similarly. Once your marriage gets “set” at a certain
degree of positivity it will take far more negativity to harm your
relationship than if your “set point” were lower. And if your
relationship becomes overwhelmingly negative, it will be more
difficult to repair it.
Most marriages start off with such a high, positive set point that
it’s hard for either partner to imagine their relationship derailing. But
far too often this blissful state doesn’t last. Over time anger, irritation,
and resentment can build to the point that the friendship becomes
more and more of an abstraction. The couple may pay lip service to it,
but it is no longer their daily reality. Eventually they end up in
“negative sentiment override.” Everything gets interpreted more and
more negatively. Words said in a neutral tone of voice are taken
personally. The wife says, “You’re not supposed to run the microwave
without any food in it.” The husband sees this as an attack, so he says
something like, “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m the one who read the
manual!” Another battle begins.
Once you reach this point, getting back to the fundamental bond that united you in the first place can seem as difficult as back pedaling while white water rafting. But my Seven Principles will
show you how to strengthen your friendship even if you feel awash in negativity. As you learn about these principles, you will come to have a deeper understanding of the role of friendship in any marriage, and you will develop the skills to retain or revive your own.
A happy couple’s secret weapon
Rediscovering or reinvigorating friendship doesn’t prevent couples
from arguing. Instead, it gives them a secret weapon that prevents
quarrels from getting out of hand. For example, here’s what happens
when Olivia and Nathaniel argue. As they plan to move from the city
to the suburbs, tensions between them are high. Although they see
eye to eye on which house to buy and how to decorate it, they are
locking horns over buying a new car. Olivia thinks they should join
the suburban masses and get a minivan. To Nathaniel nothing could
be drearier–he wants a Jeep. The more they talk about it, the higher
the decibel level gets. If you were a fly on the wall of their bedroom,
you would have serious doubts about their future together. Then all
of a sudden, Olivia puts her hands on her hips and, in perfect
imitation of their four-year-old son, sticks out her tongue. Since
Nathaniel knows that she’s about to do this, he sticks out his tongue
first. Then they both start laughing. As always, this silly contest
defuses the tension between them.
In our research we actually have a technical name for what
Olivia and Nathaniel did. Probably unwittingly, they used a repair
attempt. This name refers to any statement or action–silly or
otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.
Repair attempts are the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent
couples–even though many of these couples aren’t aware that they
are doing something so powerful. When a couple have a strong
friendship, they naturally become experts at sending each other repair
attempts and at correctly reading those sent their way. But when
couples are in negative override, even a repair statement as blunt as
“Hey, I’m sorry” will have a low success rate.
The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the
primary factors in whether their marriage flourishes or flounders.
And again, what determines the success of their repair attempts is the
strength of their marital friendship. If this sounds simplistic or
obvious, you’ll find in the pages ahead that it is not. Strengthening
your marital friendship isn’t as basic as just being “nice.” Even if you
feel that your friendship is already quite solid, you may be surprised
to find there is room to strengthen it all the more. Most of the couples
who take our workshop are relieved to hear that almost everybody
messes up during marital conflict. What matters is whether the
repairs are successful.
The purpose of marriage
In the strongest marriages, husband and wife share a deep sense of
meaning. They don’t just “get along”–they also support each other’s
hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives
together. That is really what I mean when I talk about honoring and
respecting each other.
Very often a marriage’s failure to do this is what causes
husband and wife to find themselves in endless, useless rounds of
argument or to feel isolated and lonely in their marriage. After
watching countless videotapes of couples fighting, I can guarantee
you that most quarrels are really not about whether the toilet lid is up
or down or whose turn it is to take out the trash. There are deeper,
hidden issues that fuel these superficial conflicts and make them far
more intense and hurtful than they would otherwise be.
Once you understand this, you will be ready to accept one of
the most surprising truths about marriage: Most marital arguments
cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change
each other’s mind–but it can’t be done. This is because most of their
disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle,
personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, they succeed
in doing, is wasting their time and harming their marriage.
This doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do if your
relationship has been overrun by conflict. But it does mean that the
typical conflict-resolution advice won’t help. Instead, you need to
understand the bottom-line difference that is causing the conflict
between you–and to learn how to live with it by honoring and
respecting each other. Only then will you be able to build shared
meaning and a sense of purpose into your marriage.
It used to be that couples could achieve this goal only through
their own insight, instinct, or blessed luck. 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. The first step
toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what
happens when my Seven Principles are not followed.
This has been well documented by my extensive research into
couples who were not able to save their marriages. Learning about
the failures can prevent your marriage from making the same
mistakes–or rescue it if it already has. Once you come to understand
why some marriages fail and how the Seven Principles could prevent
such tragedies, you’ll be on the way to improving your own marriage