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The Marriage Clinic by John Gottman and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver

What happens if the day comes when we loathe the little quirks in those we love? Will we let the quirks go, finding ways for relationships to grow? Will we let it fester into contempt?


John Gottman has spent his life interviewing, videotaping and studying couples. He argues that most marriage counselors are full of it, offering little more than folk psychology mixed with intellectual fads and their own charisma. Gottman argues that what matters are the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse:

·        Criticism (meaning abusive ad hominem attacks, the choice of the word criticism is poor so I will refer to this horseman as ad hominems)

·        Contempt (including disgust, sarcasm, cynicism, and belligerence, especially in voice tone and body language; for example: eye rolling)

·        Withdrawal (fleeing or stonewalling)

·        Defensiveness


Contempt, the second horseman, overlaps the first. The author's treatment of defensiveness is unclear and seems to include merely making a counter claim. Stonewalling is unresponsiveness, often occurring after being flooded with emotion. Eighty-five percent of the time stonewalling is done by men.


His research suggests verbal fights, no matter the decibel level, are not harmful to marriages as long as contempt, withdrawal, defensiveness, and ad hominems are absent. When one partner stonewalls, disappears, uses ad hominems or rolls her eyes, however, it is a sign of a marriage in trouble. Marriage usually ends with silence, not a bang.


The Marriage Clinic is an academic tome and a mostly splendid argument. The Seven Principles... is a dumbed down version of The Marriage Clinic that is so dumbed down it is shocking.


In The Seven Principles the authors argue that the following are beneficial to marital survival: Intimate knowledge, everyday caring habits, optimism about the relationship, choice of a good match, positive thoughts about your spouse, mutual respect, friendship (very important), enjoyment of each other’s company, and tolerance of or enjoyment of things important to your mate. We should live with minor flaws and find simple pleasures to enjoy. Minor irritants rarely change over time so we should learn to live with them. If a spouse has major character flaws, however, it is time to move on or call the police or both.


Three factors are extremely important in good marriages. First, updated, detailed, intimate knowledge ("love maps") of your spouse and your spouse's life is important. Sixty-seven percent of marriages decline in satisfaction after a first-born arrives, but those having large love maps, about 17 percent of all marriages, have an increase in satisfaction. Other major changes derail marriages that lack updated love maps.


Second, beliefs and expressions of value, respect, fondness, and admiration matter. Third, everyday connectedness and responsiveness are important. (A new book by Gottman and Joan Declaire, The Relationship Cure, emphasizes these "emotional bids.” Bids are little everyday signals we send that indicate whether we want to turn toward or turn away—to connect or disconnect. I have not had a chance to read much more than the flap of The Relationship Cure.)


Other beneficial marriage factors include:

·        General habits of positive feeling.

·        Tactics that prevent vicious escalations.

·        Accepting the fact that you cannot force your spouse to change. You can make suggestions, change the environment and change your self, but there is no magic bullet for changing partners.

·        Shared goals, purposefulness, mutual support, feeling connected.

·        Kissing and touching.

·        Spending time together.

·        Telling about how the day went.

·        Admitting errors.

·        Sharing decisions.


Gottman’s research suggests marriages reach their ends when complete disengagement results, when problems seem severe or are severe, when spouses become lonely and they live parallel lives. The authors argue that learning communication skills (especially active listening) is worthless. Trying popular problem solving and conflict resolution techniques is also worthless. Reciprocal score keeping, not surprisingly, is a bad sign in intimate relationships. Of course, the score keeping may not be the cause of the problem. It may result from resentment over unbalanced contributions to the marriage.


Other bad signs include:

·        Harsh beginnings to conversations.

·        Vicious counter attacks.

·        Failed attempts at repairs (Repair attempts include humor and apologies. The success of repair attempts depends on the strength of friendship and positive feelings.)

·        Habitual recollection of bad memories together.

·        Using a principle of uncharity in distorting innocuous communication. (For example: Misinterpreting “What’s on the floor?” as “You stink at housework.”)

·        Resentment about unresolved problems. (If a problem cannot be resolved, let it go or, as a last resort, get rid of your partner.)


Neuroses, personality problems, having common interests, affairs, mutually accepted conflict avoidance, mutually accepted conflict, male biology, gender differences all have little influence on marital survival, they write. Affairs are most often accidentally correlated with divorce. Affairs are

caused by the same things that cause divorce, the four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse. Couples should work together on finances, making sure to be clear and open.


They argue that at least 80 percent of ordinary marriage counseling fails. Pop relationship experts are worse. Popular relationship theories are win-lose or lose-lose. (Economic theories are now mostly win-win, yet with a little effort personal interactions can be more of a win-win activity than economics ever will be.)


There are clarity problems with Seven Principles. It has statements such as "Gender differences may contribute to marital problems, but they don't cause them." Maybe this statement means gender differences increase the severity of existing problems, but they do not increase the number of problems. Or perhaps it means gender differences increase the probability of minor problems but do not increase the probability of major problems. As for "the determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship[,]" I have no idea what the “70 percent” refers to.


Maybe someone told Gottman that every statistic reduces book sales by one percent. Seven Principles has a dearth of clear statistics.


The authors, unfortunately, put the word should in scare quotes. Emotional intelligence, scientism’s substitute for character, a way of being a moralist and making prescriptions while pretending not to, finds favor with the authors. It is moralist lite: tastes great, less fulfilling--less good.


Seven Principles fails to mention experimental controls and the factors considered in survey research, especially the effects of marriages on children. The "exhaustive observation and analysis" is in journals and other books.


The authors spend little time covering what traits to look for in a spouse before marriage. In my inexpert opinion the top five things to look for are:

1. Great character.

2. Love and affection.

3. Similar goals.

4. Resiliency.

5. Similar sense of humor. (It is hard not to roll your eyeballs at someone who thinks Adam Sandler is hilarious.)

Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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