7 Secrets of a Happy Marriage Revealed by a Relationship Expert

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To use the words of Dr. John Gottman (founder of The Gottman Institute, with over 40 years of research into married couples) - Are you a "Relationship Master" or a "Relationship Disaster"? Understanding the keys to a happy marriage could mean the difference between making or breaking your relationship with your significant other. In this article, we explore the 7 secrets (also known as Principles) for a happy marriage revealed by Dr. Gottman himself (in collaboration with Nan Silver) in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

1. Enhance Your Love Maps

This principle is based on understanding your partner and their world, to help maintain intimacy and better prepare you both to deal with stressful events and conflict that may arise in your marriage. Gottman calls this having a "love map" of your partner.

Make Your Own Love Maps

Write down then discuss information about your partner including:
  • Important people in your partner's life (friends, potential friends, rivals/enemies)
  • Recent important events in their life
  • Upcoming events
  • Current stresses / worries
  • Hopes / dreams / aspirations

"Who am I" Self-Exploration Exercise

Write down then discuss:
  • My triumphs and strivings
  • My injuries and healing
  • My emotional world
  • My mission and legacy
  • Who I want to become

2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

This principle is based on working to increase, recall or unearth positive emotions about each other. The fondness and admiration aspects of your relationship are the antidote to contempt.

Start by Writing ‘I Appreciate…’

Then list 3 or more positive characteristics that you appreciate about your partner, along with a memory or specific example of each one, then share it with your partner. For example: "I appreciate that you always know how to cheer me up. The other day when I had a really hard day at work, you cooked dinner, put on a funny movie and let me vent to you about what was bothering me, this helped me and I felt so much better afterwards."

Highlight the Positive History of Your Relationship, and What Brought You Together as a Couple

Reminiscing about the positive parts of your time together, and why you were drawn to each other is a great way to bring your focus back to you as a couple.

3. Turn Towards Each Other, and Not Away

This principle is based on the idea of staying positively connected. According to Gottman,
“[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”
This is referred to as turning towards your partner's "bids" for emotional connection. When you turn towards, you engage with your partner and let them know you value their presence and what they have to say. You can turn towards by making eye contact, smiling, and responding with validation. It also adds to the “emotional bank account” and allows for greater leeway during conflict. Relationship Masters turn towards each other 86% of the time; Relationship Disasters turn towards each other a mere 33% of the time. Turning towards creates:
  • Trust
  • Emotional connection
  • Passion
  • Satisfying sex life
Gottman's top tips to practice Turning Towards your partner's emotional bids:
  1. Take turns to speak
  2. Don’t give advice, just listen
  3. Show genuine interest
  4. Communicate your understanding
  5. Take your partner's side
  6. Express a ‘we against others’ attitude
  7. Express affection
  8. Validate emotions (empathize)

4. Let Your Partner Influence You

This principle is about making decisions together and looking for common ground (sharing the power in your marriage). Letting your partner influence you isn’t about having one person in control of everything; it’s about honouring and respecting both people in the relationship. Listening to your partner and being open to compromise and /or changing your opinion, instead of digging your heels in just to be right are some of the essential ingredients in this principle. Answer Gottman's quiz questions to see how well you accept your partner's influence (challenging yourself by thinking how you would answer these questions during conflict):
  1. I am interested in my partner’s opinions on issues in our relationship. (True/False)
  2. I don’t try to convince my partner to see things my way all the time. (True/False)
  3. I don’t reject my partner’s opinions every time we argue. (True/False)
  4. I believe my partner has important things to say and value them. (True/False)
  5. I believe we are partners with equal say in our relationship. (True/False)
If you said “true” to all of the above, you are likely to accept your partner’s influence.

5. Solve Your Solvable Problems

This principle is about problem solving and communication. According to Gottman, there are two types of marital problems: conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t be solved. It’s important for couples to determine what they are experiencing in their marriage. Here're Gottman's top tips to solve your solvable problems:

Soften Your Startup

Start the conversation without contempt or criticism. One way you can do this is to make statements which start with “I” instead of “you”.

Learn to Make and Receive Repair Attempts

In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to start the 'blame game' and go into attack mode when your partner attempts to ease the disagreement by apologising or taking responsibility for the issue. Consider this example: Person A: "I know I messed up here, can we please talk about this later?" The blame game option would be for Person B to say something like "yes, you have messed up, I'm so annoyed with you and I want to sort this out now". Notice the difference if Person B said "thank you for saying that, yes let's talk about it later when we've both calmed down". It's important to learn to acknowledge and receive repair attempts. And also, to learn to make repair attempts yourself.

Soothe Yourself and Then Your Partner

When tension is at an all-time high, it is nearly impossible to rationally see things from your partner's point of view or even to communicate exactly what you want to say without it potentially being misunderstood. If you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let your partner know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break (the usual amount of time it takes for your body to calm down). You can also try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualizing a calm, happy place. After you’ve calmed down, you can try to help soothe your partner. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.

Compromise

When conflicts arise, it’s important to take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Also, a part of accepting influence, compromise is an important part of reaching amicable solutions.

Be Tolerant of Each Others’ Faults

This step is about being tolerant of your partner's vulnerabilities and ineffective conversational habits, keeping the focus on shared concern for the well-being of the relationship.

6. Overcoming Gridlock

This principle is about overcoming gridlock through open communication with your partner about your hopes, aspirations, and life goals. Gridlock in a marriage is just like gridlock in traffic - where you are at a complete standstill because you both disagree on how to move forward. A couple can experience gridlock on any issue, and often the more gridlocked they are in an argument, the more gridlocked they become on other things as well. Through his research, Gottman has uncovered that gridlock is often caused when people's deepest dreams and desires are blocked. Happy couples believe in the importance of helping each other achieve their dreams, and move past these blocks. According to Gottman,
“Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to saving and enriching your marriage.”
Here're Gottman's top tips to overcome gridlock:
  1. Empathize with your partner - find out their side of the story, listen carefully and empathize.
  2. Be respectful - think about what kind of partner you want to be, and what kind of partner they would want to be with.
  3. Make temporary compromises - find common ground and make compromises to get out of the gridlocked state.
  4. Recall the honeymoon phase - remember the early days of getting to know each other, when you weren't trying to change one another, you were curious about the person you just met.

7. Creating Shared Meaning

This principle is about developing shared meaning together over a longer period of time to build a deeper connection in your marriage. Shared meaning encompasses a couple’s legacy – the stories they tell, their beliefs, and the culture they create to form a shared meaning system. Part of building a relationship that is full of meaning is prioritizing time and resources into the relationship; and having shared goals and a shared vision for your future. Couples who take the time to create shared meaning and goals they can work towards together are more likely to experience deeper intimacy – a hallmark of matured and lasting love. Here're Gottman's top tips to build a stronger marriage with shared meaning:
  1. Share a common dream or vision
  2. Create daily or weekly rituals of connection
  3. Implement your shared goals

The Bottom Line

By following these 7 Principles (or Secrets) and really exploring what you can each bring to the relationship, couples can cultivate long lasting, happy marriages. You can learn more about Dr. Gottman, his research and work with his wife Dr. Julie at The Gottman Institute.