Why Marriages Succeed or Fail Summary

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The book discusses how psychologist John Gottman has dedicated his career to understanding why some couples stay together and others do not. He uses a special experiment where couples are asked to argue about something for 15 minutes, and their words, facial expressions, and bodily reactions are filmed and analyzed by a team of researchers. Using this X-ray of a marriage, Gottman and his team can predict which couples will divorce within the next three years with a 94 percent accuracy rate. The book reflects on the high divorce rate despite the initial optimism in marriages and the research being done to understand why marriages fail.

The text discusses how successful marriages can take different forms and can be categorized as validating, volatile, or avoidant. Conflict or “negativity” is necessary for marriages to survive, but it’s important to balance it with affirmation and validation. Gottman identified four red flags that suggest couples are getting caught in a negative spiral: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 

  1. Criticism: Criticism refers to attacking your partner’s character or personality rather than addressing specific behaviors or actions. It involves using language that is judgmental, blaming, and accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “I didn’t like it when you forgot our anniversary,” a critical statement might be, “You’re so thoughtless and inconsiderate for forgetting our anniversary.” Criticism can feel like a personal attack, and if it becomes a regular way of communicating, it can erode the relationship.
  2. Contempt: Contempt goes beyond criticism and involves expressing disgust, disrespect, or superiority toward your partner. It can manifest as insults, sarcasm, name-calling, or hostile humor. Contemptuous behavior can be extremely damaging to a relationship because it signals a lack of fondness and admiration for your partner. Examples of contemptuous statements include, “You’re so stupid,” “I can’t believe I married someone like you,” or “You always mess everything up.”
  3. Defensiveness: Defensiveness is a natural response to criticism or contempt. It involves denying responsibility, making excuses, or counter-attacking. Defensiveness can feel like a way of protecting oneself from attack, but it can also escalate conflict and make communication more difficult. Examples of defensive behavior include, “It’s not my fault, it’s yours,” “I had to do it because you did this other thing,” or “You’re not perfect either.”
  4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling is a response to intense conflict or stress in which one partner disengages from the interaction. It involves withdrawing, becoming emotionally unavailable, or shutting down. Stonewalling can be a sign of feeling overwhelmed or flooded with emotions, but it can also signal a lack of interest or investment in the relationship. Stonewalling can look like giving one-word answers, avoiding eye contact, leaving the room, or refusing to engage in discussion.

These communication patterns can occur in any relationship, but when they become persistent and chronic, they can be detrimental to the health and longevity of the relationship. It is important to recognize when these horsemen are present and make a concerted effort to replace them with healthier communication patterns.

The book suggests that improving communication skills in a marriage is essential to turn a negative deadlock into a positive one. According to Gottman, three communication skills can help improve a relationship significantly. These techniques are easy to learn and can enhance marital happiness by 75 percent. The text emphasizes that conflicts are not always harmful to a relationship; what matters is how couples argue. The text further explains that these communication skills can help express emotions without defensiveness and demonstrate active listening.

The three communication skills identified by Gottman to help turn a struggling marriage around are:

  1. Softening Startup: This refers to how you start a conversation or an argument with your partner. It’s important to avoid a critical or accusatory tone that puts your partner on the defensive. Instead, start the conversation gently, with a neutral or positive opening statement that expresses your feelings and needs. Softening the startup can help prevent the conversation from escalating into a heated argument.
  2. Accepting Influence: This refers to the ability to listen to and consider your partner’s perspective and needs, even if you don’t agree with them. Being willing to accept influence from your partner shows that you value their input and are committed to working together to find a solution. It also helps to build trust and intimacy in the relationship.
  3. Making Repair Attempts: Repair attempts are small gestures or statements that aim to de-escalate tension and bring a sense of humor or positivity back into the conversation. Examples include using humor, acknowledging your own role in the conflict, and expressing appreciation or affection for your partner. Making repair attempts can help to prevent conflicts from escalating and build a more positive and resilient relationship.

About the Author –

John Gottman, PhD, is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington and is the holder of a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award. His other books include The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

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