The Keys to a Good and Long-Lasting Relationship
John Gottman, the world-famous marriage researcher, has developed a model of what people in
positive, long-lasting relationships do. His most well-known book is The Seven Principles for Making
Marriage Work). He can predict with great accuracy whether or not a relationship will survive simply by
observing for 15 minutes how a couple handles disagreements. But before we discuss what works, here’s
what he says doesn’t work:
- Relying upon fair fighting rules. The reason: the couples he observes, even the most satisfied, have trouble sticking with them during real conflicts (They do help, though, if you can use them, especially at the beginning of a disagreement).
- Active listening during a disagreement. Same problem.
- Trying to solve once and for all your main disagreements. Reason: 69% of significant disputes cannot be resolved permanently.
- Having a set of common interests. It’s what you do while you’re sharing your common interests that counts, not simply having them.
- Making sure there is mutual reciprocity – I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Only troubled couples think this way. When you’re happy with each other you’re not counting favors.
- Making sure you discuss every issue that comes up. Some couples don’t – but still survive OK.
- Trying never to argue: Reason: a) all couples fight; b) arguing does not predict break up.
- Affairs cause the end of relationships. Reason: according to Gottman, affairs are more like symptoms of an unhappy and already dissolving relationship.
- Men want sex and women want friendship. Actually, the best predictor of a happy relationship is friendship for both men and women.
So, then, what does work? The answer: friendship
Gottman defines friendship as mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. He states
that the quality of friendship determines 70% of the sense of satisfaction for both men and women in a
The bottom line: if you want to be happy in your current or next relationship, do everything you can to
make your partner your best friend.
How do you do that? Gottman describes seven core principles of successful long-term relationships.
- Really get to know each other well. Gottman calls this first principle “enhancing your love maps.” What he means is taking the time, energy and effort to learn all you can about your partner. The idea is to become familiar with and comfortable in your partner’s world. Couples who do this develop an emotional buffer against stress, perhaps because it’s a wonderful feeling to know that someone cares enough about you to want to understand you well. Here are a few true-false statements Gottman mentions to help you determine how well you do know
- your partner:
- I can name my partner’s best friends.
- I know my partner’s basic worries.
- I can name at least three of my partner’s favorite movies, books or songs.
- I can list the relatives my partner likes most and least.
- I can tell you about my partner’s basic values and goals
- Nurture your fondness for and admiration of your partner. The goal here is for you to develop and maintain a fundamentally positive view of your partner. You’ll know you get there when you can think and believe this statement:
“Although my partner sometimes says and does things I don’t like, basically he or she is a good person
who does far more good than harm in this world. My life is better because he or she is in it. I’m grateful
for his or her presence in my life.”
Gottman describes two contradictory habits: positive and negative sentiment override. This is a fancy
way of saying that you get what you’re looking for. If you look for the bad in your partner, that’s what
you’ll find. If you look for the good, you’ll see a lot of good. He believes you can consciously train yourself
to look for the good.
3. Turn toward each other instead of turning away.
Have you ever watched a happy couple as they interact? If so, did you notice the many small things they
say to each other? “Honey, would you like a soda?” “Dear, come here a minute. I want to show you this
picture.” Also, notice the brief touches, the frequent glances. These many small moments of sharing and
connection turn out to be momentous. With them, people feel warm and connected. Without them,
they feel all alone in the midst of their relationship.
Gottman uses the term “bid for connection” to describe the start of these interactions. It’s very
important to accept as many of these bids as possible.
Gottman suggests a specific routine: take 15 minutes a day to talk about what happened during the day
outside of your relationship.
4. Let your partner influence you.
John Gottman discovered that the very start of a conversation about a problem between partners is at
the very beginning of that discussion. He suggested that men and women need to remember specific
things to get the talk started smoothly.
Some men get defensive easily. They feel threatened by their partner’s ideas. So Gottman advises
women to begin these discussions softly so as to lessen defensiveness.
Women, on the other hand, most need to know that their partners are really listening to them and taking
their concerns seriously. The bottom line: when married men don’t listen to or let themselves be
influenced by their partners their divorce rate is 81%!
Gottman claims that around 35% of men are “emotionally intelligent” enough to not get defensive and
to listen, even to “yield in order to win.” (to compromise and occasionally give in) — in order to have a
5. Solve solvable problems.
Gottman’s research indicates that 69% of long-term disputes cannot ever be fully resolved. That still
leaves almost 1/3 that can. Here’s where good conflict management skills do help a lot. He mentions
five specific skills:
a) Softened start-up. It’s not a good idea to begin a conflict with “Hey, you idiot. What is wrong with
you? Are you crazy?” That just makes your partner defensive. Defensiveness leads to flooding, where
your body becomes so agitated you can’t problem solve and to escalation of the conflict with an
By the way, men are both quicker to flood and slower to recover than women.
Maybe because of this fact, Gottman stresses softening your start-up to women. However, men need to
do this too.
b) Make regular repair efforts. These are words or actions that keep the conflict from escalating. A
compliment, a hug, a concession (“You’re right about that, I have to admit.”), even a brief bathroom
break, all qualify as repair efforts.
c) Self-soothing. Sometimes repair efforts fail and you begin to flood. That’s when you need to take a
longer time out, one lasting at least 20 minutes.
d) Compromise. Gottman describes what he calls the FOUR HORSEMEN of the APOCALYPSE – the four
worst things you can do during a conflict. They are:
CRITICISM: pointing out your partner’s faults instead of looking for solutions.
CONTEMPT: treating your partner as if she were disgusting.
DEFENSIVENESS: insisting you are right instead of listening to your partner.
STONEWALLING: refusing to discuss the matter at all or any more.
Instead, you should respect your partner’s thoughts and personality and strive toward finding ways to
compromise and/or resolve your differences.
6. Overcome gridlock.
7. Create shared meaning in the relationship.
Now let’s talk about the other 69% of relationship conflicts that represent perpetual ongoing issues.
What frequently happens is that the two of you reach a state of gridlock where nothing is resolved, you
both feel hurt and misunderstood, and both parties resort to nastier and nastier tactics to try to achieve
Gottman believes that gridlock is a sign that each person’s deepest dreams for their lives aren’t being
addressed or respected by the other. He thinks that you need to develop a dialogue around those
dreams instead of constantly fighting over them.
Here’s an example: Betty constantly bugs Jerry about his lack of ambition. She wants him to be more
aggressive in his career. Meanwhile, Jerry hassles Betty about her focus upon money and material things.
If they could dialogue deeply about their gridlock, here’s what they would discover:
a) Jerry grew up in a chaotic, alcoholic family. His deepest dream is to live in a quiet, loving household.
Career goals aren’t really important to him, at least not compared to his real goal, and so he’s very
reluctant to develop a career that would force him away from home.
b) Betty grew up poor. Her parents never could afford to buy her things other kids had. Her deepest
dream is to gain community respect and she tries to achieve that by keeping up with the Joneses.
There is plenty of room in their marriage for both of these dreams. This couple needs to talk with each
other about them so they can understand and accept each other better. They must learn to honor each
other’s dreams even if they can’t share them. As they do this they will create a relationship that feels
mutually respectful, loving, and progressive.