Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and Others by John Gottman

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It’s been many, many years since John Gottman started bossing around the world of marriage counseling, and guess what? He’s still bossing it. As far as I can tell, no one’s ideas or research have influenced couples counseling practices more than those of this psychologist and researcher from way back.

There are some drawbacks to reading Gottman, though. To me, Gottman’s many books are highly repetitive in nature and lack a sophisticated edit. Clearly, Gottman is a researcher first and a writer second, but that’s okay. That’s why we have book summaries.

The Takeaways

  • Four bad communication habits are responsible for much of the world’s communication-related distress: criticism, contempt, stonewalling/withdrawal; and defensiveness. Anger and arguments are not likely to become a serious problem in a relationship if they are not accompanied by one of these behaviors. (That’s good news!)
  • Criticism is a form of complaint that points to a person’s attributes as the source of a problem rather than pointing to their behavior. Replace a person-focused criticism with a problem-focused complaint, Gottman recommends. Note that “I” statements are usually complaints and “you” statements are usually attacks/criticisms (though not always).
  • Use a “soft startup” to a disagreement by beginning with a complaint rather than a criticism.
  • Contempt is the worst of what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In his research he found that the presence of this habit is most predictive of divorce. Replace mean-spirited contempt or condescension such as eye-rolling with compliments and nonverbal signs of respect.
  • Stonewalling sometimes occurs due to emotional flooding–a physical and psychological response to emotional stress. To effectively handle emotional flooding, take a break, then return to the discussion once your emotions have stabilized.
  • Defensiveness is one of the most common, if not the most common, communication difficulty. When someone is defensive, they are more likely to interpret others’ comments and actions as threats and respond with resistance, anger, or aggression. This type of response can escalate conflicts, create barriers to effective communication, and damage relationships. Additionally, being defensive often leads to a lack of self-awareness and a failure to see one’s own role in conflicts. This can prevent individuals from learning and growing and can result in repeated patterns of negative behavior. Replace defensiveness by discussing one topic at a time, not responding to personal attacks, and listening with open-mindedness and assumptions of good intention.
  • “Negative sentiment override” occurs when one or both partners assume the worst of the other person (negative intentions, etc.). This is another problem to avoid whenever possible, as it causes defensiveness.
  • There are three types of communication styles: conflict-avoiding, validating, and volatile. Conflict-avoiders argue infrequently and opt to agree to disagree while focusing on the positive aspects of a situation. Validators prioritize compromise and approach conflicts calmly and objectively. They are known for their kindness but may lack honesty and independence. Volatile couples are prone to frequent and passionate arguments, but also enjoy making up in similar fashion. They are candid and honest, but prone to being easily upset.
  • When both partners the same style, any style can be healthy.
  • Gottman believes that one of the most effective ways to improve marriages is to simply increase positive affect and decrease negative affect in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Even small gestures like looking up from your phone, smiling and physically turning toward your partner can make a significant difference.
  • For a relationship to be healthy, the ratio of positive to negative interactions should be at least 5:1. If negative interactions outweigh positive ones, the relationship is likely in trouble.
  • The failure to acknowledge repair attempts is the central predictor of divorce. As much as possible, turn toward your partner instead of turning away.
  • Recognize that some issues may be unsolvable at present, as 69% of conflicts often go unresolved.
  • Focus on creating a sense of understanding and connection by showing interest in each other’s lives and sharing personal dreams, with a commitment to supporting one another.
  • Establish a shared sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Whenever possible, de-escalate arguments through agreement and validation.
  • Practice good listening skills by doing the “speaker-listener exercise.” This involves one person (the speaker) expressing their thoughts and feelings about a specific issue, while the other person (the listener) focuses on understanding and validating the speaker’s perspective. The listener summarizes and reflects back what they have heard, avoiding interruptions and making the speaker feel heard and understood. The exercise is repeated with the roles reversed, allowing both partners to have a turn at speaking and listening. The goal of the exercise is to build trust, increase understanding, and reduce conflict.
  • Acknowledge the goal of the conversation: is it to be heard, or is it to solve a problem? Don’t rush to problem solve for or with your partner unless they ask you to.

Gottman Book Selections

Gottman’s most well-known books include:

  1. “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”: This book provides a framework for building a strong and healthy marriage, based on Gottman’s research on what makes relationships successful.
  2. “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail”: This book provides a scientific analysis of what makes marriages work and what causes them to fail.
  3. “And Baby Makes Three”: This book provides advice on how to maintain a strong relationship after having a baby and how to navigate the challenges of parenthood as a couple.
  4. “The Mathematics of Marriage”: This book offers a data-driven approach to improving relationships, and provides practical tools and techniques for building a stronger and more fulfilling partnership.

About the Author

John Gottman is a renowned American psychologist and relationship expert. He is a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington and the co-founder of The Gottman Institute, which provides workshops and resources for couples and mental health professionals. Gottman is the author of numerous books on relationships and his research has been featured in many media outlets.


Can’t quite get to all the nonfiction and self-help books that interest you? Read Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday here.


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