Thursday, August 1, 2013


Healthy Marriages
Reconstructing Marriage Part 3

Ellen sat alone on one side of the two-seater. Head bowed. Tear streaked cheeks. Black and blue circled left eye. Words come slowly, choked by sobs. “It just escalated...again.” I listened. Again.

Like other psychologists and counselors, I offered couple counseling for years. At our best, we draw on the latest research. We attend workshops to hone our skills. And share ideas in an effort to help couples repair their relationships. But some marriages seem doomed to fail. Maybe even should end.

Previously, I posted about the decline of marriage and how people can act to make a difference in society. Now I look at what couples can do to strengthen their marriage.

Fortunately, the work of John Gottman and his colleagues along with other scientists in other labs have made significant discoveries that can help married couples reconstruct their marriages. In this post I review seven principles of healthy relationships and point you to Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, as a resource rich with exercises and activities to strengthen marriages. It is true that the GottmanInstitute offers workshops, programs and materials in slick packages but you can find research papers documenting the science behind the principles. And that is why I recommend these principles.

Gottman and his research team have studied couples in an apartment dubbed the “love lab.” Through careful observation, physiological measurement, and questionnaires, they have identified factors leading to > 90% accuracy rate in predicting the survival of a marriage using just a five minute sample of behavior. 


4 + 1 = 90+%

Four negative factors allow for an 82% accuracy of predicting a failed marriage. 

1. Criticism – broad negative statements

2. Contempt-- words and actions that show disgust—name calling,
sarcasm, hostile humor, eye-rolling, sneering.

3. Defensiveness-- blaming your spouse

4. Stonewalling—avoiding conflict by going silent, looking away,
or leaving

Plus 1: Even worse-- when he observes that efforts to overcome the four problems fail, his accuracy rate rises to over 90 percent. This is the failure of repair attempts.

Now the good news.

Couples can learn to apply seven principles, which are the ingredients of successful marriages.


1. Enhance your love maps. Learn the details of your spouse’s life. Know the thoughts, feelings, worries, and hopes.

2. Nurture your fondness and admiration. Demonstrate that your spouse is worthy of being respected.
“I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well.” (Chapter 4)

3. Turn toward each other instead of away. Learn to recognize “bids” for attention, affection, humor, and support

4. Let your partner influence you. Although it is not true of all wives and husbands, wives tend to let husbands influence them but many husbands have not learned this important skill.

5. Solve your solvable problems.  Learn five strategies for solving everyday relationship problems: Use a soft rather than a harsh start; learn effective repair attempts; monitor physiological warning signs; learn to compromise; increase tolerance of imperfections. You do not always have to solve every issue.

6. Overcome gridlock.  Recognize those hidden dreams and aspirations each spouse has that can lead to gridlock. Learn to discuss them in a way that removes the pain from issues that may never be completely resolved. Spouses can be seriously divided over children, religion, and returning to college or moving to a distant location.

7. Create shared meaning.  Just living happily maybe enough for many couples. Many couples enjoy raising children and caring for grandchildren. Some seek a deep, spiritual dimension to their relationship. A couple can create a microculture rich in stories and rituals.

Add Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Gottman offers a wealth of information about marriage. He also talks about repair strategies. One two-part strategy that draws on the extensive research of Ev Worthington is forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Forgiveness: 4 Steps
I wrote about forgiveness in an 18 June post. You will find exercises to work through forgiveness and reconciliation in Worthington's 2006 book,  Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. If you are looking for a Christian approach, see Worthington's book, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope.

Those forgiveness steps mentioned in June were ABCD...
  • A  Assess the harm.  
  • B Develop the Belief that you can forgive. 
  • C Commit to forgive. 
  • D  Do something to remember -- you forgave that hurt.  

Reconciliation: 4 Steps
In the June post about forgiveness I made the point that forgiveness is separate from reconciliation. This is important. Even if a relationship fails, people still need to forgive as part of getting on with their lives. But in the context of marriage repair, both spouses need to forgive each other and take steps toward reconciliation. I will list a four step strategy for reconciliation. As noted above, if you want some exercises to promote reconciliation, see Worthington's books mentioned under the forgiveness paragraph.

1. Assess safety first.

The first task, based on the concern for abuse, is to assess the safety of the parties involved. Once safety has been assured, the next step is to establish a willingness of the parties to reconcile. Forced reconciliation is not warranted.

2 and 3. Trust and test. In this phase, people attempt to work together on small tasks or projects. Perhaps two people can agree to help with an event involving no more than an hour of close contact. A couple who has separated may agree on eating a meal together or attending a child’s school event together. Small steps offer the opportunity to build trust, which is the key to a successful reconciliation. Engaging in the activity is a test of trust. So trust and test work hand in hand to increase a positive relationship.

4. Undoing the harm. At some point in the reconciliation process, consideration should be given to undoing the harm that has been done. This step requires wisdom and experience so a counselor or therapist may be helpful to ensure that the early discussions are productive. Undoing the harm usually involves one or more apologies and expressed forgiveness.

There are other approaches to forgiveness and reconciliation. Some authors use a different number of steps. The good news is that people can learn to forgive and reconcile. Relationships can be repaired. And all the lessons from Gottman and his colleagues can help couples reconstruct their marriages. See also my posts about effective apologies.

I think it easy to integrate psychology and religion when it comes to improving relationships-- especially marriages, which require love and trust to be healthy. And of course forgiveness is a big part of many faith traditions including the one most familiar to me, Christianity.

Technical note. When I use examples they do not represent actual persons but are rather composites in order to protect confidentiality.


Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Sutton, Geoffrey W.  (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration edited by Martin Mittelstadt & Geoffrey W. Sutton, 125-144. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

 Worthington, Everett L., Jr. (2003) Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

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