John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Brief Thoughts about Happy Marriages

Book cover

I'm in the middle of a workshop by John Gottman, surely one of the most knowledgeable marital researchers on the planet.

Gottman and his colleagues have studied couples in distress, but also what he calls master couples, couples who are satisfied with their marriage over time.

As you might imagine, these two groups differ in important ways. One of the findings that grabbed my attention was that master couples have about a 5 to 1 ratio of positive emotion to negative emotions, whereas distressed couples have a ratio closer to 1 to 1. It's not that master couples don't experience anger, hurt, sadness, and so on in the context of the marriage. It's just that they experience so much more joy, interest, and laugher when they're together.

What he's really talking about is the emotional glue that holds a marriage together. It looks a lot like friendship, but of course it's more than just being friends. Part of how master couples create this glue is by making bids for each other's attention--and getting it. Attention comes in many forms: intimate talk, emotional support, affection, and sexual connection. For instance, it's nice to know your partner cares about what you care about, and will listen to you, right? But if you make consistent bids for your partner's attention and don't get it, eventually you'll stop trying. Gottman says this is how people become lonely in marriages. And it's one of the ways marriages can die.

When master couples do have conflict, they manage it well. For instance, they do what he calls a soft start-up. When one partner presents a problem to the other, they go easy on the criticism (careful not to attack partner’s personality). And when the opposite partner listens to the complaint, they try to take responsibility for at least some piece of the problem. In other words, they are open to their partner’s influence. And when negative emotions do run high, as they invariably will during a disagreement, master couple quick to repair the relationship when damage has occurred.

There is a lot more to good marriage, of course, than what I’ve presented here. If you’re interested in knowing more, I’d recommend Gottman’s book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.