Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: Summary

why marriages succeed or fail book cover

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (1994) provides a research-backed analysis of marriages and relationships, helping couples succeed.

Bullet Summary

  • Make sure to have at least 5 positive moments for 1 negative
  • Engage conflicts without being defensive and offensive
  • Focus on the positives, and make time for what you both like

Full Summary

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” leverages years of research and contains lots of expletive examples.
The examples are not present in this summary.

Types of Successful Marriages

Gottman highlights 3 different types of successful marriage.

And do you want to guess what’s a major way to tell them apart?
How they fight :).

Here are the three types:

  • Validating

They’re calm and make an effort to understand their partner’s point of view and their emotions.
They use a lot of “aha” and “I see” and encourage the partner to share everything.

Validating couples tend to have traditional and defined roles and to be good friends valuing the “we” of their marriage.

Risks: passionless and losing sight of unique personalities for the “we”.
But overall it’s a solid marriage.

  • Volatile

Frequent and heated arguments without listening to each other. They’re all about winning.
They value full honesty and independence.

Risks: Can verbally hurt each other or lead to violence in extreme cases.

  • Avoidant

They minimize conflicts and avoid “unsolvable” issues altogether.
The bond is so strong that it trumps the disagreements.

Risks: They don’t learn to address issues. And they are low on introspection and understanding, which can lead a partner to think their spouse doesn’t really understand them.

Matrix of Types

These are the different mixes of personalities we can have.

“You” is the first half:

  • Conflict Avoider / Volatile

You can feel overwhelmed with conflict engagers and feel your partner is too combative. You can feel it’s too much when they “force” you to resolve conflicts (instead of sidestepping).

  • Volatile / Conflict Avoider

Your spouse probably feels you always bring conflict into the marriage and that you are overly emotional

  • Validator / Volatile

You find your partner argumentative and domineering and they don’t give you the chance to express your feelings. You wish you could work more as a unit and as a “we”

  • Volatile / Validator

You perceive your partner as too detached. You try to get a rise out of your partner sometimes and feel like your need for autonomy falls on deaf ears.

Types of Unsuccessful Marriage

Gottman recognizes two types of relationships when they’re heading toward divorce.

  • Hostile Engaged

They argue often and use name-calling and sarcasm.

  • Hostile detached

They are equally offensive to each other, but without fully engaging their spouse. It happens when two stonewallers are in a relationship and it’s the most likely to break up.

What Determines Successful Marriages

Gottman says that happiness in relationships is not in a particular style of fighting or making up, but:

  • Balance between positives and negatives (5 positives to 1 negative minimum)
  • Actions toward each other

Later in the book he gives two more pointers:

  • Agreeing on a style to handle disagreements with
  • Repair mechanisms (to limit negativity and increase positivity)

If you allow negativity without making an effort for positivity your marriage will get sour.
Gottman advises making an effort. Think of your spouse in a positive light during the day, for example.

And notice that anger per se is not negative (unless expressed with contempt, defensiveness, and criticism).
Couples who divorce and split up fight a lot, yes, but volatile couples also fight a lot. But then make up for it with far more time laughing, joking, and loving each other.

Disagreement is Needed

Gottman then wonders if it wouldn’t be better to avoid all disagreement and negativity.

He says in the short run maybe yes, but in the long run, couples need to hear the differences.
Disagreements and anger might lead to short-term misery, but they’re helpful in the long run.

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Relationships with lots of negativity often have toxic elements which Gottman dubs “the four horsemen of the apocalypse“.
He chose that name because they easily predict marriage dissolution.

Here they are:

1. Criticism

There’s a key difference between complaining and criticizing.

Complaining mentions a specific behavior or instance, or something you wish would be different.
They often start with “I”.

Criticism is a global attack on personality or character and passes a judgment. They often begin with “you” and add “always” or “should”.


You always do that, you only think about yourself

Antidote: complain without blame and make your criticisms specific. Use I statements and express your needs in a positive form. What would you like to see more?

2. Contempt

Contempt is the intention to insult, hurt and psychologically abuse your partner.

The partner using contempt takes a position of superiority and wants to make the other feel inferior and unworthy.
When contempt engulfs your relationship you have difficulty remembering any single positive quality of your partner.
Signs of contempt are:

  • Insults and name-calling (bitch, fat, ugly, failure, losers.. )
  • Hostile humor “we could go there… If you can manage to move from the couch, that is
  • Ridicule “oh yeah you sooo care about me
  • Facial expressions (sneering, rolling eyes, curling upper lip)

Antidote: it’s the greatest predictor of divorce and must be fixed. You counteract it with a culture of appreciation and respect.

3. Defensiveness

Play the victim, counterattack, or rightful indignation. You deploy them to defend yourself or reverse the blame.
Defensiveness prevents you from solving the problem and making your partner feel heard and cared for.
The partner using defensiveness feels under siege and therefore doesn’t see anything wrong with being defensive, which makes it so hard to invert.

Signs of defensiveness:

  • Denying responsibility
  • Cross-complaining (ignore your partner and launch your own complaint)

-You never sit with us for dinner
-It’s because you never clean the place and it’s so dirty

  • Denying previous commitments “I never said I would do X
  • Making excuses “it was external forces that led me to do that..
  • False smile, protective body language (moving from side to side, closing off, self-soothing)

Antidote: Calming yourself is the first step, then stop seeing your partner’s words as an attack and force yourself to understand and empathize.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling happens when one partner withdraws from an argument or interaction.
He stops engaging or physically leaves to convey disapproval and distance.

You could see stonewalling as the opposite of exploding. It’s an implosion and, similar to exploding, does not help your relationship.

Most stonewallers are men (85%) and they often do it not to hurt their wives but while trying to be neutral. However, women’s heart rate jumps when their husbands stonewall them as for women it’s emotionally painful (men are not as bothered by wives stonewalling them instead).

Stonewalling can compound when the wife’s kitchen sinks, such as starts aggressing more and more to get a reaction out of him, starting a vicious circle.

Antidote: let your partner know that you need to take a break. Then calm down and go back to engage her (/him).

Inner Scripts Impaired

Gottman says that the tipping point towards divorce happens when the four horsemen turn our internal self-narratives fully negative.

When that happens, we can’t see past criticism to find a solution. We hear a complaint and we think “typical of this princess”, or “classic of his ahole attitude“.

When that happens, we cannot avoid defending ourselves and we can’t see any qualities in our partners anymore. Everything our partner says takes a negative connotation.
The two types of impaired scripts:

  • Innocent victim

As long as you feel like an innocent victim of an abuser, your marriage will not improve

  • Righteous indignation

Feeling like a victim plus hostility and contempt towards the spouse.
When inner scrips are permanently damaged it leads to vicious cycles of negativity


Flooding is the experience of feeling swamped or “system overload”.

Men get flooded more easily, which possibly explains why men are more likely to stonewall (imploding under pressure).

Gottman says people can become chronically flooded. And that’s when inner scripts get impaired.
The flooded partner ignores positive gestures or sees them with suspicion. And interprets negative interactions as “the clear sign of who he really is”.

Flooding is the driving force behind the isolation cascade that leads to dissolution.

The stages are:

  1. You see your marital problems as severe
  2. Talking about problems with your spouse seems useless (and look for solutions on your own)
  3. You start leading parallel lives (and actively avoiding your partner)
  4. Loneliness (the marriage is unofficially over)

If you feel lonely, you need to admit to your spouse how you feel. Let them know you’re lonely and you need to change or you fear for your relationship.

Breaking Cycle of Negativity

To avoid flooding:

  • Calm yourself

First, recognize when you’re flooding. To calm yourself down, breathe slowly and deeply.

Take a break for 20 mins and only go back when you’re fully physiologically calm. If you don’t, you’ll take over your partner’s emotions.
It’s important you don’t think of your spouse or of the fight, especially in negative forms. Instead, read, work, and read a magazine.

Gottman proposes to measure the heart rate and advises the exact percentages at which you should take a break.
I don’t feel it’s helpful for most couples as they won’t go that far. Just keep in mind that you’re only fully calm after you actually feel fully calm. So stay another 15 minutes away.

  • Speak non defensively

Start with listening non-defensively. Empathize and put yourself in your partner’s shoes.
Avoid any facial expression that conveys disappointment or sarcasm.

  • Validate each other and the relationship: praise and admiration

Gottman says that we sometimes focus on negatives to improve, but we must be careful not to let negativity take center stage.
Looking at the positive also works in relationships as in all other areas of life.
Using lots of praise and admiration is a great way to forestall cycles of negativity and institutionalize virtuous cycles instead.

  • Internalize the principles

Changing is not a matter of one-off changes. It’s a matter of repetition: you must internalize the changes (read the power of habits).

Gender Difference: Women VS Men

Gottman first warns of the dangers of generalization because that’s what they are: generalizations.

With that in mind, here are some key differences between gender:

  • Women have an easier time with emotions; men get lost in a sea of emotions
  • Men have shorter fuses and tend to get flooded quicker -criticism is enough-
  • Stonewalling is distressing for men as they brood on the issue; for women because they want to work through emotional issues
  • Men tend avoiding issues; women prefer to address issues
  • Men can have sex even when angry or distant; women don’t

On average, women are the emotional managers in relationships and the ones to bring up difficult topics.

Advice for Men

  • Embrace her anger: she’s not attacking you, she just needs you to address the issue

Advice for Women:

  • Confront him calmly
  • Say you still love him and only want to change a specific behavior
  • Let him know that talking is a way to keep your relationship great

Advice for Both:

  • Accept the differences

Suggestions for Happy Marriage

A few more tips on improving your marriage:

  • Schedule discussions (and don’t postpone)
  • Divide discussions in:
    • agenda
    • persuasion/arguing
    • resolution (only say yes to something you’re happy with)
  • Summarize your partner’s point of view or what you agree on instead of only your opinion
  • Be realistic in your exceptions and accept differences
  • Make time for the things that make you two happy
  • Experience new things together
  • Tell the stories of your common good times: glorify them

why marriages succeed or fail book cover

Real-Life Applications

Take Care of Your Relationships
There’s so much great information here that I cannot summarize it in one go. The only thing I’d like you to focus on is to… Focus on your relationship.
It’s one of the most important determinants of your happiness, health, and even success.
And the good thing? You don’t just do it for yourself but also for your partner (and the people around you).


There’s so much information that I’d have really appreciated a better structure.


Why Marriages Succeed or Fail is another pearl from John Gottman.

The book is too good to summarize effectively and it has a ton of examples that will help you understand the concept to make your marriage great again (and sorry for spoofing Trump :).

Check out the:

Or get the book on Amazon

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