The Seven Principles for a Healthy Relationship--Gottman Style


Photo by Maya Dehlin

One thing I do in my spare time is read relationship books. Actually all kinds of books but we will focus on relationship books to simplify things today. They aren't all easy reads either. Or equally valuable. It takes time--and a desire to plow through material that isn't always riveting. Do you get my meaning? Well, I am your girl. Every once in a while, I will be highlighting a book of note. It may be a relationship book or not. The idea is that I will provide a summary of sorts or a few highlights from my read. This will work out brilliantly for you! Why? Well first, you will have access to the goodness of professionals without the time commitment of reading the whole version. But also, you can decide if the professional or the book is worth your time to read. If you love what I share, maybe you want to delve deeper and get a copy of the book to savor. Or maybe the bite-size version was the perfect amount. So let's begin it.

A couple of years ago, I read the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It is written by John Gottman, who is one of the nation's leading researchers on the subject of marriage.  He is most famous for his working labs--where couples fly into town to stay for a few days. They are observed over a short period of time and given feedback as to their overall relationship health and dynamics. Gottman can predict whether a couple will get divorced with 91 percent accuracy in as little as fifteen minutes! Interesting, right? And while John Gottman uses the term "marriage" throughout this book, committed relationships come in many forms so let's open that up a bit, shall we?

Let's see about those seven principles!

  1. Enhance your love maps. Gottman has a love map questionnaire of sorts. It is the perfect kind of thing to bring on dinner dates or out on a walk to remain connected with you significant person. A few sample questions are-What is your favorite way to spend an evening? What is one of your greatest fears? What is your favorite movie? Who are your closest friends? You get the idea. There is also a section for a cluster of common experiences or dreams. Triumphs and Striving is one section. Injuries and Wounds. There is also My Emotional World, My Mission and Legacy, along with Who I Want to Become. John and I have been married nearly 25 years. I eat this stuff up. Still, this chapter really illustrates the idea that we are always changing and growing. We need to create spaces to really know one another. To ask questions. To be curious and open to the fact that there is still plenty to know about our partner.

  2. Nurture Fondness and Admiration. My daughter, Maya, made an observation once that couples who have been together a while tend to overvalue the qualities their spouse does not embody, while undervaluing the qualities the spouse actually does offer! Oh dear. On some level, this is a natural result of how our brains work. But just like there is a movement centered around being grateful for the small things in life to help rewire the brain toward positivity (think grateful journals for one)-- this movement is also necessary in our relationships. Showing true gratitude and appreciation is a choice we can make each and every day. Gottman has a number of exercises designed to cultivate admiration and genuine positive regard. We can all make efforts that might encourage having fresh eyes for our significant other. It is as easy as noticing a few things each day that our partner is especially good at. Go ahead and tell them! Share that appreciation!

  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. This is where Gottman introduces the concept of "bidding," which is a favorite of mine. The idea is that our relationships are comprised of these mini moments where one partner may reach out in an attempt at connection with the other. How this is met is crucial. I may reach out to touch John's hand while he is reading the news. Does he take my hand and squeeze it? Does he look up and acknowledge the gesture in some way? Or a couple may be sitting by a window. One spouse is reading the paper, while the other eats breakfast. Maybe the one eating comments on a bird outside. Does the reading spouse actually look up? Does he notice that perhaps his partner is looking to connect? The more positive responses we have to our bids, the better for our relationship. Simple things add up. Of course turning toward each other also goes a lot deeper too. Choosing to confide in your loved one when you are feeling vulnerable is important. Valuing time and space together. You get the idea!

  4. Let Your Partner Influence You. This is one of my favorite chapters. Did you know that statistics show that when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct? Research also shows that a husband who can accept feedback from his wife also tends to be a great father. He is connected to his children. He knows their friends and fears. Why? Because a man who is influenced by those he loves tends to be emotionally intelligent. He is not afraid of his own emotions-- so he is more able to connect to and hold another's feelings. I like the idea of influence for both parties. It needs to work both ways. I must admit that Gottman is gendered here--focusing on the males in the relationship. That is the science, folks! The mark of influence is the ability to consider another point of view and to be genuinely open to feedback. And change!

  5. Solve your solvable problems. Many conflicts in marriage actually aren't solvable. We need to change how we view these irreconcilable differences or come up with creative approaches to navigate situations that will simply recur over and over again. Regardless, problems mean inevitable conflict. This chapter introduces the idea of a "harsh start-up." Why do you need to know about a "harsh start-up?" Because it dooms most conversations before they even begin. Harsh start-ups tend to be critical and emotionally charged. A few examples might be "You never have time for me!" or "I see you didn't take out the trash like I asked. Not that I am surprised!" A soft start-up alone increases your odds of being able to communicate effectively and to bypass things like emotional flooding . A soft start-up uses "I" statements, versus "You" statements. A soft start-up states a simple need without judgement. It is polite and appreciative. Emotional flooding is also explored here as well as self-soothing. Time outs are crucial for when we are no longer in wise mind but have entered a reactive state. I love the quote, "Your future together can be bright even if your disagreements tend to be very negative. The secret is learning the right kind of damage control." Amen.

  6. Overcome Gridlock. Gridlock is a term used for any type of paralysis on an issue within a relationship. So maybe you have the same argument over and over again with no closure. Or you have an issue that always polarizes you. Or compromise isn't possible as it might infer losing parts of yourself. Gottman offers the idea that it is healthy to individuate a couple's needs and separate dreams that are at odds in such situations. The couple takes turns using skills like soothing or trying a temporary compromise that includes determining what the non-negotiable areas might be. Most gridlocks are going to be ongoing conflicts that must be navigated creatively and with a great deal of care. Humor helps! Acceptance is crucial. It is comforting to realize that every relationship has areas of gridlock.

  7. Create Shared Meaning. Meaning is explored through rituals of connection. They can be events or routines that allow for you to feel close to one another. They also tend to reflect and reinforce your togetherness. John and I love to exercise together most days. We enjoy making and eating good food or watching movies at the Broadway. Meaning is also created from supporting one another in each other's roles. Having similar views on parenting or sharing in the importance of parenting can add meaning to a relationship. A shared purpose in life can be grounding. The secret seems to lie in having your expectations for one another- within the relationship and family paradigm-be similar. Shared goals contribute to meaning as well. What do you want out of life? What do you want your life to feel like? An adventure? Or a mix of action and rest? What is most important in a relationship? Healing (feeling safe and accepted) or growth (feeling challenged and inspired)? Is religion important? What is most crucial in the parenting journey? So huge. The truth is that these answers can change depending on our circumstances or where we are in our journey. Normally, I lean toward a growth paradigm. This past year, I noticed I was processing grief, and just wanted to feel safe and secure for a bit. Shared values are the last mentioned key to creating meaning together. This is one of the most effective and healing aspects of coaching. Helping people identify what they value in their lives and relationships allows for a rebirth of sorts. It is empowering to carefully consider and create a family culture or love relationship that reflects you.

You made it! Seriously, nice job. Do you need to hydrate? Lists are hard as they tend to overwhelm. No need to take it all in at once. Pick one principle you really feel for. Try it out. Really integrate it into your relationship. Small steps make big changes. Care to share your favorite one from the list? I would love to hear if you have one that resonates or feel free to share one of your own! What do you think about this idea of sharing a bit of the good stuff from a book? Thanks for reading!