Over my years as a therapist, I have enjoyed helpin..." /> Over my years as a therapist, I have enjoyed helpin..." />

Pitfalls and Possibilities on the Road to a Healthy Marriage

A couple holds hands and walks down a rainy roadOver my years as a therapist, I have enjoyed helping premarital couples as they prepare for marriage. One of the books I frequently recommend is John Gottman’s 2015 book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost 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 of researchers observed 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. Researchers also monitored participants’ stress hormones by hooking them up to stress monitors and measuring stress hormones in their urine. Based on these interactions, Gottman reports that he is able to predict divorce with over 91% accuracy.

So what are some of the warning signs that your relationship may not succeed on the road to happily ever after? The first place to look is at your conversations. If conversations contain what Gottman calls “the 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse”, your relationship could be headed for a rocky road.  The communication patterns Gottman identified as unhealthy include:

  1. Criticism — an expression that contains negative feelings about your partner’s character or personality.
  2. Contempt — a form of disrespect that communicates a superiority over your partner.
  3. Defensiveness — a way of “playing the victim” that actually turns the blame back on your partner.
  4. Stonewalling — disengaging from your partner completely, avoiding conflict but also avoiding resolution.

While all of us have utilized the above techniques on occasion when 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 patterns and salvage your relationship? Well, yes and no. Yes, you can change the way you communicate, and no, that’s not all 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 includes 3 parts:

  • Here’s how I feel.
  • It’s about a very specific situation.
  • Here’s what I want/prefer.

The second part of the solution is what Gottman calls “nurturing your fondness and admiration”. After years of studying and treating couples, Gottman learned that in order to counteract negativity, there has to be positivity. A few strategies for this?

  1. Identifying ways that you appreciate your partner.
  2. Naming qualities about your partner that you admire.
  3. Recalling your “love story” — how you met and what drew you to the other person.

Relationships can be hard, but they can also be very rewarding.  If you and your partner are willing to put in the time to nurture your union, you can count on having someone on your side for the long haul. If you would like to learn more about relationships or want help for your relationship, try finding a couples counselor here.


Gottman, J. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

© Copyright 2019 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Susanne

    July 16th, 2019 at 1:05 PM

    I have been waiting to read that COMMUNICATION is one and first strategy that couples, singles, people in general have to be able to do in order to live especially couples as this topic is about. To have a healthy relationship that will flow together can be difficult; as for me I have experienced many unhealthy relationships due to sometimes thinking that I may be “too” communication oriented because I’m honest and straight to the point when communicating with my partner then I’m told “you’re mean”. In my opinion the main strategy that needs to be first is Honesty then Communication.

  • Dan

    July 17th, 2019 at 9:38 PM

    Hi Susanne. Not a therapist myself, but in a long term relationship and trying to keep learning. I think to look at your strategy of Honesty and then Communication, my response is Honest Without Kindness is Cruelty. Which is really tough, because you need to talk about your issues, but helpful to do it in a way that gives the other person a chance, maybe they didn’t know they were doing something you didn’t like? And importantly, maybe they didn’t know how you feel about it. Do you talk about their fault, or your feelings about what they’ve done? Can make a big difference.

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