The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: Summary

the seven principles to make marriage work book cover

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999) is the most popular book from relationship researcher John Gottman and it’s a seminal text when it comes to understanding what makes successful relationships.

The 7 Principles

  1. enhance your love maps
  2. nurture your fondness and admiration
  3. turn toward each other instead of away
  4. let your partner influence you
  5. solve your solvable problems
  6. overcome gridlocked problems
  7. create shared meaning.

Bullet Summary

  • Marriage satisfaction has a huge impact on health and happiness
  • You can likely save your marriage even when it’s not going well
  • You can likely improve your relationship even when it’s already going well

Full Summary

Unhappy marriages can increase your chance of getting sick by 35% and shorten your lifespan by around 4 years.

Gottman says that working just 10% on your marriage instead of the gym, you’d get 3 times the health benefits.
Let’s start then.

Myths of Relationship

Gottman starts off with a few myths that need to be debunked:

  • Affairs destroy relationships

It’s often the other way around, bad relationships cause affairs.

  • Men are not built for marriage

Cheating is more about opportunity. Today young women outstrip men on infidelity.
My Note: this is not fully true, or at least not true in the data I have most recently seen. 
The two genders are near, but men still slightly ahead. On average, men engage more in sexual affairs and women in emotional affairs (which of course can include sex, too)

  • Reciprocity makes good relationships

NO, keeping tabs is bad, happy couples help each other without keeping scores

  • Men and women are too different

Yes and no, 70% of men and women agree friendships is the key

What Makes Marriage Work?

  • Positive Sentiment Override

“Sentiment override” refers to how people see the relationship as a whole. If you have a positive image of your partners and your relationship, you will take notice of the positives and discount the negatives.
But if you have a negative override, you look with suspicion -or disregard- what your partner does well.

  • Sense of Meaning (or purpose)

When partners have a strong sense of meaning, they understand each other’s dreams and aspirations and support them.

  • Repair Attempts

Repair attempts are words, sentences or actions that stop negativity from escalating.
Repairing attempts are crucial in saving marriages as they lower stress level and prevent flooding.
Indeed, couples overridden with The Four Horsemen but engaging in successful repair attempt stayed together in 84% of the cases VS 90%+ of breakups without repair attempts.

How to Predict Divorce

  • Harsh startup

A harsh beginning with criticism and contempt in the first 3 minutes predicts the trajectory of a 15 minutes conversation with 96 accuracy. That’s to say that beginnings set the tone for what’s to come.

  • Four Horsemen

If you’re familiar with Gottman’s work, you know these are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.
Criticism is an attack about the other person;
Contempt is criticism on steroids by adding sarcasm and cynicism;
Defensiveness is about defending ourselves instead of listening and, often, counter-attacking;
Stonewalling is tuning out of the discussion, and usually arrives later in the relationship.

  • Flooding

Flooding is an overwhelm of our system and we cannot rationally function well anymore (increased heart-rate, flight or fight kicks in).
Usually, people stonewall to protect from flooding.
85% of stonewallers are men because they flood easier (women produce more milk when relaxed and oxytocin is in the brain while men survived easier when they reacted more strongly)

  • Bad Memories

Couples who are badly entrenched in negative views (negative sentiment override) rewrite their past with a negative tone. And that’s why past memories become a good predictor of the future.

Solvable & Unsolvable Issues

Some issues can be solved, while some others are perpetual.
The majority (69%) are unsolvable problems.

Some examples are:

  • Having or not having children
  • Sex frequency
  • Children’s religion

Marriages are successful to the degree to which you can live and compromise with the unsolvable problems.

Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps

Love maps are, in a nutshell, how well you know your partner.

The more familiar you are with your partner, the more intimacy you can share, and the stronger your relationship is.
Couple with stronger love maps are also much better at weathering life crisis periods (including the birth of a baby).

Principle 2: Nurture Fondness & Admiration

Fondness and admiration are a great antidote to the four horsemen, and to contempt first of all.
Gottman says a great way to increase fondness and admiration is to:

  1. list all the qualities of your partners you admire
  2. tie the qualities a practical event
  3. share it with your partner
  4. celebrate the happy moments and the history of your relationship

Principle 3: Turn Towards Each Other

Turning towards each means paying attention to your partner. It allows the couple to stay connected, and it happens daily starting with all the small things.

Example 1:

A man looking at a magazine commenting to his wife “wow, look at that boat”. And the wife replies it’s like the one they saw last summer, with the husband confirming.
Couples engaging in chit chat like that stay happily married.

Example 2 (at the grocery)

Her: Do we still have wash up liquid at home?
Him: I’m not sure, but let’s take some just in case
(instead of shrugging the answer)

Example 3:

Her: I had such a bad dream tonight 
Him: I’m in a big hurry, but tell me about it quickly so we can talk more about it tonight

Exercises

  1. Take turns to speak
  2. Don’t give advice, just listen first (women react more negatively to quick advise)
  3. Show genuine interest
  4. Communicate your understanding
  5. Take your partner side
  6. Express a ‘we against others’ attitude
  7. Express affection (say I love you, put an arm around them)
  8. Validate emotions (empathize)

Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You

Letting your partner influence you means sharing power.

It means you listen to them and you are open to compromise and change your opinion if it makes sense.

Both partners can refuse influence, but it’s more commonly a male issue. And it’s a big mistake: 81% of couples that don’t allow influence split up.

Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems

This principle is about problem solving and communication. To a certain extent, it comes down to having good manners.
Here are the steps:

  • Soften your start up

Women tend to be the ones who bring up issues, but they also tend to do so in a harsh way. Make sure you start warmly.

  • Learn to make and accept repair attempts

Humor or direct (ie.: “can we take a break”, “I was too mean, sorry”). Announcing them often amplify their power.

  • Soothe

Understand when you’re flooding and need to self-soothe and help your partner do the same.

  • Compromise

Part of accepting influence. Giving ground is an important part of reaching happy solutions.

  • Be tolerant of your partner’s faults

Also see:

Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator

Principle 6: Overcoming Gridlock

Gridlock happens when a partner doesn’t respect the other partner’s dreams or “the way he is”. For example, spender VS saver or security VS safety seeker.

Here’s how to find out your partners’ dreams:

  • Become a dream detective

Some people might disguise their aspiration as “childish” or “impractical dreams”. But dig deeper anyway or they will resurface without your support and understanding.

  • Work on them

There are three steps to work on your partners’ dream:

  1. Listening (without criticizing)
  2. Financially supporting them
  3. Taking active part in them

And, ideally:

  • Find common ground

You might never be able to fully solve gridlocked issues, but you can find out the areas where you can compromise and workarounds for the areas you cannot.
Or simply understanding where you cannot compromise is already a major win.

  • Appreciate

It might not always be easy to appreciate and say thank you after a gridlocked discussion, but do end on a positive anyway.

Principle 7: Creating Shared Meaning

A shared meaning is a togetherness between two individuals that goes beyond the differences and arguments.
It takes years to build, but here are a few ways to promote it:

  • Family culture (dinners, Christmas traditions, holidays together etc.)
  • Shared symbols
  • Reflect on your history together

the seven principles to make marriage work book cover

Real Life Applications

Work on your relationship
The amount of helpful and relationship-saving and enhancing wisdom in this book is too much to summarize.
The main real life application I would take away from “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” is this: relationships matter. They’re one of the biggest factor to determine your health, success and happiness.
Not working on them is plainly stupid.

CONS

  • Disjointed: it’s far more than 7 principles

It’s called “7 principles” but the principles and key concepts in the book are much more. Trying to reduce them to 7 but then disseminating the book with more crucial wisdom isn’t helping the reader.

  • A few unneeded off topics

I find the book going sometimes off track, like in the discussion of cultural shifts in gender roles.

  • A bit self aggrandizing

Especially the beginning of the book, it reiterates (a bit too) often on the scientific foundation of the book. Once was enough 🙂

PROS

Great Wisdom
As for most of Gottman’s work, The Seven Principles to Make Marriage Work has deep wisdom that will make your relationships better.

Novel Content
I particularly appreciated that it goes well beyond the usual “Four Horsemen of The Apocalyspe”. Especially the concept of repair attempt is really eye opening.

Review

“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage” work is a fantastic source to understand what makes relationships truly work.

Not only everything Gottman says makes sense, but I also appreciate that it’s not just his intuition speaking, but that everything is grounded in research and data.

Highly recommended.

Check out the best relationship books or get the book on Amazon

1 thought on “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: Summary”

  1. Chance Fambrough

    Hello, I enjoy reading all of your posts and reviews, great stuff. I wanted to write a little comment to support you.

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