Traps and opportunities on the road to a healthy marriage

A couple holds hands and walks down a rainy roadDuring my years as a therapist, I have enjoyed assisting couples as they prepare for marriage. One of the books I recommend often is John Gottman's 2015 book, The Seven Principles of Marriage Work: A Practical Guide by the Country's Top Relationship Expert. It provides practical advice for married couples. Not only is it practical, but the material is also supported by 30 years of solid research studies.

John Gottman and his team observed the married couples in a "love lab" and studied the details of their interactions. They observed couples' communication patterns, expressions, body language and tone of voice. The researchers also monitored the participants' stress hormones, connecting them with stress simulators and measuring stress hormones in their urine. Based on these interactions, Gottman says he is able to predict divorce with accuracy of over 91%.

So what are some of the warning signs that your relationship may not succeed on the road happily ever after? The first part you see is your conversations. If the conversations contain what Gottman calls "the 4 Horsemen of Revelation", your relationship could be headed down a rocky road. The communication patterns that Gottman describes as unhealthy include:

  1. Review – an expression that contains negative feelings about your partner's character or personality.
  2. Contempt – a form of disrespect that imparts an advantage to your partner.
  3. Defense – a way to "play the victim" that really shifts the responsibility back to your partner.
  4. Stonewalling – Disconnect from your partner completely, avoiding conflicts and avoiding resolution.

While we have all used the above techniques in occasional situations when a conflict arises, it is the persistent use of these techniques over time that can lead to relationship strain.

So what is the solution? Can't you and your partner just change these plans and save your relationship? Well, yes and no. Yes, you can change the way you communicate and no, this is not just what you need to thrive and have a healthy relationship.

The first part of the solution is to approach your disagreements with a "complaint". A complaint presents information about the current situation without throwing your partner under the bus. A complaint has 3 parts:

  • Here is how I feel.
  • This is a very specific situation.
  • Here is what I want / prefer.

The second part of the solution is what Gottman calls "cultivating your love and admiration". After years of studying and treating couples, Gottman has learned that to offset negativity, there must be positivity. Some strategies for this?

  1. Determine how you value your partner.
  2. Naming the qualities for your wonderful partner.
  3. Remembering your "love story" – how you met and what connected you to the other person.

Relationships can be tough, but they can also be very rewarding. If you and your partner are willing to take the time to promote your union, you can count on having someone on your side for the long haul. If you want to find out more about relationships or want help with your relationship, try finding a couples counselor here.


Gottman, J. (2015). The Seven Principles for Creating Marriage: A Practical Guide by the Country's Most Important Relationship Expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

© Copyright 2019 All rights reserved. Publication permission is granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Newport Beach, California

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