Book Review: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman and Nan Silver, Orion

Clergy marriages are likely to face some unique challenges, however they will also face challenges common to all married couples. It makes sense to have as healthy a marriage as possible when embarking on ministry life as then you will be better able to weather any storms which come your way. With this in mind I thought it would be worth reviewing a book which looks at how all couples can make marriage work.

This book is compelling because it is based on years of scientific study by John Gottman. Gottman is a research scientist on marriage and family at the University of Washington, as well as Codirector of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. The data he has accumulated has led him to the point where he can predict with 91% accuracy whether a marriage will fail or succeed, based purely on listening to a couple interact. His research has pointed him to seven principles which will prevent a marriage from failing. The exhaustive nature of the research is impressive so if you like to follow advice based on rigorous scientific evidence this is the book for you.

Before outlining his seven principles Gottman explains how he is able to predict whether a couple will divorce. The issue is not how much a couple disagrees but the way they argue. He outlines six signs which he finds present when a couple argues which indicate that a marriage is in trouble. Having these clearly described makes it easy to recognise them in your own interactions with your spouse. It also helps you to acknowledge why they are so damaging and make it almost impossible to have a productive discussion. The reassuring note is that the occasional presence of these signs is not a reason to panic. The problem is when they become a regular presence in the life of a couple. He also believes that marriages which have hit rock bottom can be saved if they get the right help. The really interesting point Gottman comes to is that teaching people to deal with these six signs was not the key to helping people save their marriages. By studying happily married couples he concluded that the key is how couples are with each other when they are not fighting. The heart of his advice is that you have to strengthen the friendship between you as this will protect your relationship when conflict does occur.

He goes on to outline the seven principles which keep a marriage stable and happy. Each principle is explained with examples from real couples which helps to illustrate how the principle affects a relationship. The really useful aspect of the book is that once the principle has been explained there comes a questionnaire, which allows you to assess how strong your marriage is in this area. There then follow exercises aimed at strengthening this principle in your relationship. I liked the fact that Gottman recommends doing these exercises regardless of how strong you already are in that principle. It makes the book useful for any couple as there is always the potential to improve your relationship. There are several exercises for each principle so you can pick and choose depending on what feels useful for you. The principles build on each other and working on one makes it easier to work on the others. I liked this wholistic feel which focuses on the whole relationship rather than just teaching specific techniques about communication or conflict resolution.

Some of the principles seem fairly obvious when they are pointed out to you, such as cultivating fondness and admiration for your spouse. Others were more of a revelation, such as what he has to say about marital conflict. Gottman claims that conflict is either solvable or perpetual and in marriage 69% of conflicts are perpetual. This turned on its head my belief that it is important and possible to solve all major marital conflicts. However it was also a relief to find an explanation for why some issues just seem to be unsolvable. Gottman argues that it does not matter if you can’t solve an issue as long as you can find a way to avoid becoming gridlocked over it. He explains the difference between the two types of problem and outlines the techniques you can use to deal with them. He also dedicates a chapter to common solvable problems and this is full of practical, sound advice.
I found this book very readable and interesting. It holds information and practical advice which can help any couple improve their marriage. The principles he lays down would make sense for any clergy couple to follow. A deep friendship is essential to coping with the challenges of having a spouse in ministry and I think these principles are a great way of sustaining that friendship. I will certainly be putting these principles into practice in my own marriage and have told my husband he has to read it too!

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