The bad news is that the divorce rate in the United States is reportedly hovering around 50%.
The good news is, that number is holding relatively steady over time, and it means approximately half of all first marriages last “til death do us part.”
There is even better news: years of research into why some couples make it and why others don’t has revealed real solutions for married couples. We know now that there are specific habits, practices, and even activities that can help couples stay together.
Today, some of the stereotypes and stigma around counseling are being dispelled, and more and more couples are taking advantage of therapy to learn these practices. These couples are finding greater happiness and fulfillment, being more supportive and present for their children, and providing stability in their families and communities.
Dr. John Gottman, a long-time marriage therapist and researcher, has discovered seven principles that are proven to help relationships stand the test of time. These principles, when taught to couples, help them communicate better, solve problems more effectively, lean on each other, and support each other through good times and bad.
Who is Dr. Gottman and What is Couples-Based Therapy?
Dr. John Gottman is the author of several books about marriage counseling. Most prominently, his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has sold millions of copies.
The research in that book, and the principles that he teaches to couples, therapists, and researchers, are the result of years of his professional experience and research.
To study marriage, he created a space that he calls the “Seattle Love Lab.” Here, he and his associates filmed thousands of hours of conversations between married couples. They painstakingly noted habits and actions in conversations, actions, and even facial expressions. Then they tracked couples for years after. They found that they could predict with stunning accuracy which marriages would survive.
More importantly, they were able to decipher the skills and habits that helped other marriages endure over time.
Dr. Gottman distilled this learning into the seven principles, which are summarized briefy near the end of this article.
Why traditional marriage counseling often does not help
Let’s face it, most people only go to couples therapy when one or both partners believe there is a significant problem in their relationship. Traditional marriage counseling approaches marital problems with good intentions, but poor results, seldom preventing divorce or even extending struggling marriages.
One of these ineffective counseling styles is a “conflict-resolution” approach. In this method, the therapist brings to the surface issues that cause the couple to quarrel. Then they are led through a problem-solving template. Ideally, they are taught these problem-solving techniques, then sent off to try them on their own.
Problem-solving is, in fact, an important skill to have in a marriage. The problem with this approach is the suggestion that it is the ONLY skill. A more comprehensive approach will help partners know when and how to apply this skill.
Another ineffective or incomplete therapy strategy is to help couples focus on active listening, validating the partner’s ideas, and the use of “I” statements. Again, these are important skills for people to have – and not just in marriage!
However, as Gottman points out, sitting still and listening actively as your partner shares criticism of you, either in private or in front of a therapist, is practically impossible to master. Even the most patient soul will eventually grow weary or angry of this work. One might come to believe that “active listening” is synonymous with low-level verbal abuse.
These are good skills to have. They are not, however, up to the task of improving struggling marriages all by themselves.
Gottman’s Seven Principles
Gottman’s seven principles are built around skills like active listening and conflict resolution. Fortunately, they go further in creating an integrated approach to preserving a relationship. And they have been proven to help marriages – even struggling ones – survive.
Here is a quick summary of the seven principles; seven activities or ongoing practices that both partners can do to improve their relationship:
- Enhance your love maps. Gottman says that first a person must know their partner deeply. A “love map” is the knowledge of what the partner likes, fears, needs, and has experienced. If one does not start with this basic map, it will be difficult to get to “forever” together.
- Nurture your fondness and admiration. Not surprisingly, when couples marry, they report a strong fondness for each other. However, like any other feeling, love and admiration can fade if it is not nourished. A person can grow in love for their spouse through a broad range of specific and intentional actions.
- Turn toward each other instead of away. Because marriages force couples to be together so consistently, it is easy to want to turn away from each other when there is conflict. It may even feel like a relief to not have to talk about certain conflicts. In successful marriages, though, couples learn how to lean on each other to solve problems rather than ignore them.
- Let your partner influence you. The old joke is that the husband and wife both say “anything you say, dear,” but then do whatever they want. That is a roadmap to an unhappy marriage. Instead, partners work together to solve problems, make big purchases, and influence each other in many areas.
- Solve your solvable problems. Gottman, or your therapist, can provide a structure for understanding which of your problems you can solve, then working to solve them. Doing this creates fewer spaces where conflict can create anger or resentment and damage a relationship.
- Overcome gridlock. As Gottman explains efficiently in Seven Principles: “When couples are able to sidestep gridlock, they come to treat their perpetual problems as they would a pesky allergy or a bad back … they manage to keep it from overwhelming their life together.” Getting around gridlock allows a marriage to tackle other problems.
- Create shared meaning. Creating shared meaning is having an answer to the question, “Is that all there is?” Couples can learn the rituals of their connection and describe their role in the relationship. This leads to, or is propelled by, having shared goals and shared values.
Gottman’s approach is a proven method for strengthening and preserving relationships.
Of course, it is most effective when you are guided through by a trained therapist. If you have further questions, or would like to set up a consultation to discuss how to improve your relationship, please contact Sakina at SakinaIssa.com. She can give you and your partner skills to solve this important puzzle.