The #1 Secret to a Happy Marriage

relationship counselingHave you ever wondered what is the secret to a happy marriage? Maybe you’ve made a list of what you’re looking for in a mate. Of course your idea of an ideal partner might look different at different stages in your life, but could include a steady job, great sex, smart, funny, romantic, curvy or studly, vegetarian or meat eater, easy going or exciting, your race/culture/religion/class. But, even if you found all your ideal qualities in a one person, would that make for a happy partnership? Haven’t you met couples before that were very different, but seemed so happy in their love? It might have you really wondering, what is the secret to a happy marriage? Or, is there one?

Research On Relationships 

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 of the Gottman Institute has been doing scientific research on intimate relationships for almost 30 years.

Gottman began his research 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. Essentially, 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.

Create A Relationship Based In Kindness

Gottman’s overarching theme of what make marriages work is creating a climate of kindness. Yes, kindness is the #1 secret to a happy relationship. It seems so simple, and it’s probably what your mother taught you—to 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. It’s kindness.

The fact is, you aren’t going to be happy in your relationship  if you aren’t nice to each other. Gottman, with his 25-year longitudinal study, has a number for this too. You need five 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 he shared something with me that I’d never seen him write. The 5:1 ratio of pleasant to unpleasant exchanges is necessary in the middle of an argument. The actual ratio for everyday life is 20:1. These numbers are based on research, and that’s a whole lot of niceness.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t and don’t express anger. Rather, 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 a “masters of marriage” couple arguing.” The couple is in the middle of a disagreement, going back and forth fairly rapidly. Suddenly, 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 percent accuracy whether a couple will divorce within three 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. 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 explain that marriages in which the men fail to listen to their wives’ complaints and 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 they did find women using too many words, talking too fast and using a harsh tone. Gottman advises women 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.

Same Sex Couples

Gottman also did a 12-year study of same sex couples and found that all of 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 engage in 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 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.