I just finished reading The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by renowned marriage researcher and clinical psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D, and writing up a piece on his seven science-based principles. (Stay tuned for that one!)
In addition to sharing what leads to a successful marriage, Gottman also debunks common myths about relationships. Here are three that I found especially interesting and surprising — and I think you will, too!
By the way, you can learn more about John Gottman and his research here.
1. Myth: Better communication will save your marriage.
Fact: We often hear that successful conflict resolution, which includes active listening, makes for healthy and happy marriages. But according to Gottman, most of the roughly 650 couples they sampled “rarely do anything that even partly resembles active listening when they’re upset.”
Also, a study by researcher Kurt Hahlweg and colleagues found that couples were still distressed after trying active listening techniques. Couples that were helped relapsed within a year.
Plus, conflict-resolution-based marital therapies have a high relapse rate. He cites research that reveals a success rate of 35 percent for the best conflict resolution therapy, a rate that diminished a year later. (Only 18 percent of the couples maintained improvements at followup.)
One of the problems is that most couples aren’t able to listen actively. And it’s hard to be empathetic and objective when your partner is talking about you. According to Gottman, “Active listening asks couples to perform Olympic-level emotional gymnastics when their relationship can barely walk.”
He doesn’t discourage people from using the technique. He says that if you think it’ll help, give it a try. But “Even if it does make your fights ‘better’ or less frequent, it alone cannot save your marriage,” he writes.
2. Myth: Avoiding conflict will kill your marriage.
Fact: We also often hear that fighting is a good thing. You get out your grievance instead of letting it fester and balloon until you erupt. We’ve come to believe that staying silent will sabotage and subvert relationships.
But according to Gottman, “Plenty of lifelong relationships happily survive even though the couple tend to shove things under the rug.” He gives the example of Allan and Betty:
When Allan gets annoyed at Betty, he turns on ESPN. When Betty is upset with him, she heads for the mall. Then they regroup and go on as if nothing happened. Never in forty years of marriage have they sat down to have a “dialogue” about their relationship. Neither of them could tell you what a “validating” statement is. Yet they will tell you honestly that they are both satisfied with their marriage and that they love each other deeply, hold the same values, love to fish and travel together, and wish for their children as happy a married life as they have shared.
Gottman says that couples just have different conflict styles. Some avoid fights like the plague. Others fight often. And still others are able to talk issues through calmly and reach a compromise.
Surprisingly, neither style is superior. The key is that partners aren’t a mismatch in their argument style. So if one partner wants to discuss a conflict, but the other flees the house or turns on the TV, that’s a problem.
3. Myth: Reciprocity underlies happy marriages.
Fact: Some people and even professionals believe that happy partners have an implied agreement to compensate each other for their good deeds. For instance, you cook dinner and your partner responds in kind by washing the dishes.
Alternately, in bad marriages, it’s believed that couples have broken that contract, and built-up resentment results. In theory, by informing couples about this unwritten contract, their relationship will improve.
“But it’s really the unhappy marriage where this quid pro quo operates, where each feels the need to keep a running tally of who has done what for whom,” Gottman writes. Happy couples, however, just do nice things because they want to. They feel good about their partner and their relationship.
Gottman says that if you’re keeping score over an issue, it’s probably a source of tension in your relationship.
What do you think about these myths?
Do you think they’re still facts?