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What Makes Relationships Succeed or Fail?

Falling in love is great. We are full of attraction for the other person and energized to be in a relationship with them. These beginnings can often be the stuff of poetry and art. The whole experience can be quite inspiring. For example, I think Shakespeare's sonnets are so beautiful:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate”


“For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

Finding somebody we connect with and feel this way about is a gift and not one that is guaranteed to us during our lifetime. I married relatively late, in my 40s. After years of dating and being in different relationships, I would often wonder if I would find my Juliet. So when I found my Juliet, or I should say when I found my Stephanie, I felt like I had received a gift. One that I knew may not come along again. Love stories are beautiful and I always prefer happy endings. We have a pillow on our couch that is embroidered with the words - “And they lived happily ever after.”

However, is finding Ms. Right or Mr. Right the key to “living happily ever after” realistic? Approximately half of marriages end in divorce. Moreover, we can imagine that not all those couples that stay married do so because they are happy with their relationship. Why do so many couples who start off in love and energized about their relationship end in divorce, unhappy, or ambivalent?

Most of us never studied what makes relationships work or what is destructive to relationships. Our relationship education is a mix of information we picked up through trial and error, role models, advice we have received, and random information that we have come across. How do we know if our education about this most important topic has been a good one or not? Are their lessons or principles we can learn that will help us improve the satisfaction with our relationship and avoid divorce or being in an ambivalent relationship?

Try this thought experiment with me. Imagine studying and observing thousands of couples over 40 years. From these couples imagine you identifying those couples that stay happily married and those that end in divorce. Then imagine you are able to identify the common activities those that stay happily married do in their relationships as well as the common patterns that occur in the relationships that end up in divorce. In fact, from what you are able to learn you can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will divorce. Also imagine that you are able to check if some common notions about why relationships succeed or fail are accurate and to your surprise many of these notions turn out to be incorrect. Finally imagine that you take the principles you have learned and teach them to couples over a two-day workshop. You do not structure this workshop like couples counseling, but rather focus on teaching couples about these principles and how they can integrate them into their marriage through practicing skills during the weekend and incorporating certain activities into their routine at home. With great satisfaction you find that the majority of these couples that learn about these principles and engage in the skills and activities from the workshop vastly improve their relationship. Would it not be wonderful if such a thing existed? Well guess what, it does exist! That is exactly what Dr. John Gottman was able to accomplish over his 40 years of researching thousands of couples and why he is considered the foremost relationship expert in the country.

So what are these principles that make marriages work and what are the destructive patterns that lead to divorce?

Seven Principles that Make Relationships Work

  1. Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps or Knowledge of Each Other

  2. Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

  3. Principle 3: Turn Towards Each Other Instead of Away

  4. Principle 4: Let your Partner Influence You

  5. Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems

  6. Principle 6: Overcome Gridlock

  7. Principle 7: Create Shared Meaning

Destructive Signs that Predict Divorce with Over 90 Percent Accuracy

  1. Sign 1: Harsh Start-Up during Disagreements

  2. Sign 2: Presence of One or More of the Four Most Destructive Relationship Patterns (Four Horsemen)

  3. Criticism

  4. Contempt

  5. Defensiveness

  6. Stonewalling

  7. Sign 3: Emotional Flooding During Disagreement

  8. Sign 4: Related Physiological Reactions to Emotional Flooding

  9. Sign 5: Failed Repair Attempts

  10. Sign 6: Rewriting the Past with a Negative Slant

Stephanie and I were so excited to come across this research and evidence supporting it that we decided to base our marriage vows on these principles. Practicing these principles in our marriage has made our relationship grow stronger over time while avoiding many of the destructive patterns that it is so easy to fall into. We also decided to become Gottman educators and to start offering these two-day workshops about the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. We are thrilled and feel blessed to be in a position to share this knowledge with others. We are also super excited to meet other couples that want to be proactive about increasing their relationship satisfaction whether they have been married for 6 months or 60 years and keep their love growing for many years to come!


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