The #1 Secret to a Happy Marriage

relationship counselingHave you ever made a list of what you’re looking for in a mate? Of course it would look different at different ages, but it might include steady job, great sex, smart, funny, romantic, curvy or studly, vegetarian or meat eater, easy going or exciting, your race/culture/religion/class. So what is the secret to a happy marriage?

What’s the Research?

Therapists have had a lot of ideas over the years about how couples should repair their relationships, such as using tools like active listening and “I” messages, but psychologist and researcher John Gottman has been doing scientific research for almost 30 years about what really works.

At the start of his research Gottman began by hooking up couples to electrodes and asking them to talk about their relationships. He measured their blood flow, heart rates and how much sweat they produced.

What does their physiology have to do with anything? He found that in the unhappy marriages, the subjects’ heart rates soared, their sweat glands were active and their blood flow was fast. And the more physiologically reactive the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated.

It wasn’t that some couples had a better physiological make-up; it was that the happier couples had created a climate of trust and safety. The unhappy couples had all the signs of fear—of being in flight, flight or freeze mode. Just sitting side-by-side and talking about their relationship felt unsafe to their bodies.


Gottman’s overarching theme of what make marriages work is creating a climate of kindness. Yes, kindness. The #1 secret to a happy relationship. It seems so simple and it’s probably what your mother taught you: Be nice. Kindness is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. It’s the glue that holds couples together. Not sex, not money. Kindness.

The fact is, you aren’t ever going to be happy if you aren’t nice to each other. Gottman, with his 25-year longitudinal study, has a number for this too: you need 5 times as many positive interactions as negative ones. I’ve mentioned this to couples and seen them blanch; it seems like an impossible standard. I questioned Gottman in person at one of his trainings and heard something I’ve never seen him write. The 5:1 ratio of pleasant to unpleasant exchanges is for being in the middle of an argument. The actual ratio for everyday life is 20:1. Based on research. That’s a whole lot of niceness.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t express anger, but that kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. Here’s an example of kindness, humor and good will in an argument . . . Gottman has a video of an arguing couple, one he calls the “masters of marriage.” The couple is in the middle of a disagreement, going back and forth fairly rapidly, when the husband looks down and asks, “New shoes?” The room goes quiet; everything stops for a moment and settles. The wife smiles and says, “Yes, I just got them.” It is a lovely moment of the two of them joining together. When they resume their talk, it has shifted from an argument to a problem-solving conversation.

Kindness could include sweet notes and flowers and they are a nice plus, but those gestures don’t get to the heart of it. Kindness means friendship, wanting the best for your partner, not trying to win an argument (because the other person and the relationship lose), and acknowledging and accepting your differences.

“There’s a habit of mind that [happy couples] have,” says Gottman, “which is this: they are scanning their social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. [Unhappy couples] are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Gottman’s research team at the University of Washington in Seattle can predict with 93% accuracy whether a couple will divorce within 3 years. He outlines what he calls the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 4 problematic behaviors:

Criticism  Example: “You only think about yourself.” This is different from complaining. This is attacking someone’s personality or character rather than a specific behavior, usually with blame.

Defensiveness  Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late. It’s your fault.”

Stonewalling  Example: The listener shuts down and stops responding.

Contempt  Example: “You’re such an idiot.”  Contempt is insulting and psychologically abusive to your partner. It can include put-downs, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery and body language.

Gottman reports that the first three are present to one degree or another in all relationships, but Contempt is the real killer and has no place in a healthy marriage. Then he goes on to say that eye rolling is a sign of contempt. Being a defensive person, my first response to this was, “What?!? It’s just eye rolling! I’m not even saying anything!” But of course I was saying something. Something like, “You’re so full of it, I can’t even bother to comment.”

For the Men

Gottman has the same things to say to men as to women with two exceptions: he believes that men need to accept the influence of their wives and that women need to be more gentle in starting up a discussion. To do otherwise is to win the battle but lose the war.

“Getting husbands to share power with their wives, by accepting some of the demands she makes, is critical in helping to resolve conflict,” says Gottman. “The woman usually brings up relationship issues for discussion and is also usually the one to give an analysis of the problem and suggest solutions. Men who are able to accept their spouses’ ideas are more likely to have happy, stable marriages.”

He goes on to say that marriages in which the men fail to listen to their wives’ complaints, who meet them with stonewalling, contempt and belligerence, are ill-fated from the beginning. You may not divorce, but you won’t be happy. “If you want to change marriages, you have to talk about the ‘emotionally intelligent’ husband. Some men are really good at accepting a wife’s influence, at finding something reasonable in a partner’s complaint to agree with.” This group represent about a third of all men, according to Gottman.

So, to the men, what does taking the influence of your wife look like? If your wife asks you to put the toilet seat down, don’t give her a smartass answer about her leaving the toilet seat up. Simply put the seat down. She’ll appreciate it.

For the Women

The researchers found little evidence of women failing to listen to their husbands but he did find them using too many words, talking too fast and using a harsh tone. He advises them to use a “Softened Startup,” couching their complaints in a gentle and soothing, perhaps even humorous, approach. Men are more easily flooded by emotionally charged exchanges and tend to become defensive or stonewall.

To the women: easy does it. You’ll vastly increase your chances of being heard by a softer approach. Anger generally begets an angry, uncooperative response.

About the aforementioned active listening and “I” messages, Gottman doesn’t prescribe them for a really simple reason: people don’t actually use them, especially when they’re in the middle of an argument. It sounds like a great idea but it doesn’t work in practice and their use isn’t correlated with happy relationships. “Asking that of couples,” says Gottman, “is like requiring emotional gymnastics.”

Perpetual Problems

Here’s another surprising and surprisingly helpful fact: 66% of all relationship problems are perpetual, meaning that they are chronic and unsolvable. This applies not just to your relationship but to everyone’s, whether you are arguing about sex or money, work or children, the dishes or the mess in the garage.

What is helpful about this is that it normalizes the fact that you have differences that you’ve had for years and can’t ever work them out. Neither can anyone else. The best you can do, says Gottman, is to stay out of “gridlock”, that state of hunkering down in your position. The idea is to keep talking about it and tweaking it. The problem doesn’t go away, but the conversation stays open with good will.

Same-Sex Couples

Gottman also did a 12-year study of same-sex couples and found that all the couples types studied, whether straight, gay or lesbian, have the same relationship satisfaction and quality. However, same-sex couples have many advantages: they are more optimistic in the face of conflict, show more affection, humor and joy and less sadness and whining. They have a greater ability to calm down in the middle of a fight and are in general less defensive and take things  less personally.

“Straight couples may have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian relationships,” explains Gottman. They use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics and display less belligerence, domination and fear. This suggests that fairness and power sharing between the partners in gay and lesbian relationships are more important and more common than in straight ones.

I highly recommend John Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, a concise and invaluable book loaded with evidence-based research on how to improve your relationship.