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The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, A Guide from John M. Gottman, PhD, Part 1

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John Gottman is a relationship expert who is known for being able to predict divorce with 91% accuracy. He claims to be able to do so within 5 minutes of watching a couple interact! How can he do that you might ask? Well, Dr. Gottman looks for six tell-tale signs in the communication between a couple: a harsh startup, the four horsemen (which we will go into more detail later), flooding, body language, failed repair attempts, and bad memories. He states that arguing doesn’t indicate much, but rather the WAY that you argue shows whether a marriage will or won’t succeed.

The Harsh Setup

Dr. Gottman states that the way in which a discussion starts can quickly indicate how it will end. If a conversation begins with contempt, criticism, or inappropriate sarcasm, it will inevitably end on a negative note, even if there are numerous attempts to neutralize the situation throughout the conversation. He says “Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction.” If your conversations start this way, it’s best to take a step back, recoup, and start over so your message can be received.

The Four Horsemen

The four horsemen are specific types of negative communication patterns that are “lethal” to a relationship. These horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • Criticism

    While specific complaints about individual issues are normal, criticism is a global attack on your partner’s character or personality and indicate a larger issue. For example, being upset with your partner for neglecting to pay the electricity bill is a valid concern. Saying “I’m upset that you paid the bill late. It resulted in a late fee and that frustrates me” is a fair response. However, saying “You always do this. You can’t remember anything and now we have to pay extra because of your constant mistakes” is an insult to your partner’s character and attacks who they are as a person. The first response addresses the situation at hand – a complaint, while the second response attacks the person’s sensibilities and throws blame – criticism.

  • Contempt

    Contempt is “poisonous” to a relationship. It is the eye-rolling, cynicism, name-calling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor, and other demeaning behaviors. Dr. Gottman states that this is the worst of the four horsemen. Solving a problem is never going to happen if there is a tone of disgust between partners; it only leads to more conflict rather than reconciliation. Contempt is fueled by “long-simmering negative thoughts” about your partner. These negative thoughts are more likely to occur and continue if disagreements are left unresolved

  • Defensiveness

    Defensiveness is a way of blaming the other partner: “It’s not ME it’s YOU.” All defensiveness does is escalate a conflict; while it seems to be a way to explain the situation, it often comes out of a place of self-preservation instead of a coming together to solve the problem as a team. Rather than hearing each other out, partners feel a need to protect themselves and remove any responsibility from themselves for the problem at hand. Defensiveness is very natural if one partner is attacking the other, but it is rarely if ever going to result in a solution.

  • Stonewalling

    Stonewalling is when one partner stops listening to the other one and becomes unresponsive in a discussion. It is disengagement and shows a lack of concern for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Stonewalling tends to happen after a couple has been together for many years, as it generally is a result to the other three horsemen occurring often over a long period of time.


Flooding occurs when your partner’s negativity is so overwhelming and sudden that you feel at a complete loss. You are shocked and feel defenseless against the attack. The more often this happens, the more often you find yourself looking for cues that it will happen again, making you tense and hyper-vigilant around your partner. You end up in a constant state of protecting yourself, and it eventually ends up in complete emotional disengagement.

Body Language

The next sign is body language. How your body reacts to conflict indicates the severity of the conflict and how comfortable you are in conflict with your partner. If your heart rate skyrockets, you start sweating, and you feel an adrenaline rush, it can be a sign that there is a larger issue at hand; when your body reacts this way, it shows that you believe you are in danger, something you should never feel about your partner. Not to mention, it is very difficult to have a level headed conversation when you are physically in this state. Your ability to process information is reduced, meaning you aren’t able to hear and understand your partner fully, nor can you properly articulate your thoughts and feelings. You are left to your body’s natural trauma responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Any chance of resolving the issue is gone, and more often than not, the conflict will get worse.

Failed Repair Attempts

Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to de-escalate a conflict. These can be simple and direct, like saying “Let’s take a break and talk about this when I’m less upset,” or something specific to your partner, like an inside joke or a predetermined statement that you both use if you feel things are getting out of hand. Repair attempts are so important because they prevent flooding, thus preventing the fight, flight, or freeze response while in discussion with your partner. If one partner is trying to use repair attempts and the other isn’t hearing them or adjusting based off the attempt, it shows that the four horsemen have completely taken over and the discussion is futile. Repair attempts can fix even the worse arguments that are filled with the four horsemen if each partner is open to the repair. Without the repair and the openness to the repair, there is little that can be done.

Bad Memories

When asked about you and your partner’s past what first comes to mind? Are they happy memories about your wedding day or the early days of dating? Or, do you only remember negative things where he or she messed up or something bad happened while you were out together? The presence of primarily negative memories shows a tendency to view your partner negatively and your relationship negatively. There is a cloud of negativity – a distorted negative perception of your partner. A lack of memories altogether also indicates a problem; the past “has become so unimportant or painful that you’ve let it fade away.”

Dr. Gottman states that if any of these six signs are visible in a relationship, there is a high chance of a separation. However, there are ways to come back together, even if ALL of these signs are present. How conflict occurs is a sign of the overall state of a marriage, but conflict is not the problem in and of itself. Dr. Gottman states that the key to a happy marriage is a foundation of friendship between partners. Getting back to that connection is key to reviving a seemingly broken partnership; and, in doing so, the issues with conflict have a tendency to straighten themselves out! In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss Dr. Gottman’s seven principles that will get you and your partner back to this friendship and rebuild your marriage.

Contact our counselors at Counseling Works today to learn more about how you can benefit by scheduling an appointment with us.

Written By: Hannah Payne

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