The Seven Principles Project: Myths, Truths, and Predictions

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So far I have read the first two chapters of Dr. Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. As discussed in this previous post, Dr. Gottman did not concoct these principles. He observed them. He explains in the first chapter how his research is done.

There is something called the Seattle Love Lab that the Gottman Institute created for research. It is a fully functioning apartment. Couples are invited (or volunteer) to go to this apartment for the weekend and have a typical weekend with one another. They are encouraged to bring hobby items, pets, and food with them. The idea is for the couple to stay the weekend in the apartment and live their normal lives. This sounds pleasant enough, like a mini vacation, but all the while the couple are being monitored. There are cameras in the apartment, a one-way mirror in the kitchen, and they are wearing medical devices to monitor their blood pressure, heart rate, and even perspiration! The couples agree to this, of course, and Dr. Gottman and his staff observe the couple in their “natural” state.

This information is key because he refers to it again and again. Over 600 couples have been observed over a span of over fifteen years. This research is extensive and the first of its kind. Dr. Gottman has created these Seven Principles after observing the differences between happily married couple and not happily married ones. The happily married ones behave in seven ways, while the unhappy ones do not. Once the unhappy couples start behaving in these seven ways, many times there is a success in saving the relationship. Although Dr. Gottman uses the word “marriage” a lot in his book, I will stick to relationship because we all have these prior to getting married.

Side note: I know that this is a very lengthy post. Bear in mind that I combined Chapters 1 and 2 in this post, so it covers a lot of material.

As a preface, Dr. Gottman clears a few things up about relationships.

HERE’S WHAT ISN’T TRUE ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS:

1. Personal quirks and neurotic tendencies ruin a relationship
This just flat-out isn’t true. We are all individuals. We all have quirks or neuroses that drive other people crazy. One behavior may be pleasing to one person while it makes another person want to scream in frustration. It is important to remember that just this alone does not doom your relationship – not things like OCD, not mental illness, and not a chronic illness. The best way to work these into your relationship – which is as unique as the two of you – is to respect these aspects of your personality. As a personal example, I am a sensitive woman. Dave knows this about me, and is very gentle with me, especially when he is feeling angry. Since it does not take a heavy hand to get the message across, I am not suited for someone who yells and screams and uses harsh words. It is not that I am too sensitive, it is merely respecting that part of who I am and incorporating it into our relationship. When you are in love, you don’t get to toss the parts you don’t like out the door. It’s all or nothing – neurotic tendencies and all.

2. Common interests keep couples together
This can be a wonderful thing for a relationship, but it can also be a downfall. Dr. Gottman relays that it depends on how couples interact with one another while sharing these common interests. To give you an example, Dave and I both love music. However, he has a more technical background because he went to school for music, whereas I just like music. This might seem kind of silly, but it can be a huge deal for couples. Music is a frequent common interest, but it does cause from friction. Just think about it – in the car, what kind of music do you listen to? Who picks? We take turns to show that we respect one another. When Dave talks about music, I listen and try to understand. I am attentive. When I am singing in the shower, he doesn’t correct me on my vocal performance. He just tells me he loves when I sing. We can share this interest together and it brings us closer, rather than creates a wedge between us.

3. The tally board is playing fair
When I read this particular tidbit, I was really fascinated. Most couples have an unwritten agreement that they will make sure each one is being cared for equally. I use this with Dave when it comes to going out to dinner. To be fair, I have a guesstimate of who has spent what in our relationship and I try to keep it balanced. Dr. Gottman suggests that happy couples do not need a tally system because they do nice things for each other without expecting something nice in return. It’s not supposed to be you scratch my back and I scratch yours, it is supposed to be genuine expressions of love and affection when they arise.

4. Avoiding conflict is great for relationships
False, false, false! Conflict is a necessary part of being in a relationship. The two of you are fundamentally different and you will disagree. Instead, fight the way that works for you. It is possible to raise your voice without being abusive, and it is possible to be effective with a soft tone. Arguments and relationship discussions aren’t a sign of trouble – that’s just part of the package. For Dave and I, we always spend a lot of time making sure that the other one understands what we’re saying. We asks each other how we feel about what we say and what our thoughts are. We almost never raise our voices – but as soon as we do we take a break. That is because for Dave and I, it is a sign of escalation and that our tempers are flaring up. Neither one of us feel that we are being constructive, so we take a break and try again later.

5. Affairs are the root cause of breakups
I have actually never heard anyone say this, but apparently it is commonly held belief. Perhaps it is because I was already in this situation, but I know why affairs happen. Affairs are not the cause of a breakup, only a symptom of a larger problem. I’m not talking about a fling where the boyfriend/girlfriend cheats. I’m talking about an affair – often times more to do with feelings of intimacy, trust, and friendship rather than sex. Affairs happen when one partner feels lonely in the relationship. I know firsthand what that feels like, and how nice it is to have someone to connect with when your spouse is not emotionally plugged in or is being hurtful. Although I never cheated, I would say that I had an emotional affair – I had a deep and meaningful friendship with someone other than my spouse, and he was the person I turned to when things were hard, rather than my spouse. Interestingly enough, we are close friends to this day, and I am very glad for that. But, over time, our friendship changed into something more appropriate for a platonic pair.

 

HERE’S WHAT IS TRUE ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS:

1. Relationships are built on friendship
A study mentioned in the book states that 70% of men and women list friendship as their top priority for a requirement in their marriage. Friendship forms the foundation for all other things – especially romantic relationships. It is important to have a deep sense of meaning with your partner; in other words, support one another and help one another achieve goals. Friendship also comes from mutual respect, understanding, and kindness. Dr. Gottman states that happy couples are ones that have a relationship built on friendship first – and that this gives them a secret weapon: they are able to prevent arguments or discussions from escalating before it’s too late.

2. Most relationship arguments cannot be resolved
This is kind of a shocker, too. If we go into our arguments thinking to ourselves – this will not be solved – then it immediately alleviates the pressure of having to solve it! I know that I hate arguing, and Dave does too, and we always want to put an argument behind us. For the past few months we have been having the same argument again and again. I don’t really like to call it an argument, it’s really more of a disagreement, but we both care a lot about each other and how we feel so it does create some heated discussions. Finally, today, I said to Dave: “I cannot relate to you. I cannot emphasize with you, or understand what you are saying, or possibly know how you feel. You can explain it ten different ways, but because I am not just like you, I will never really understand how it is that you feel. What you are saying makes sense, but I just can’t relate.” I also pointed out that he was in a similar position with me: he could not relate to me or empathize, because he does not understand how I feel. We have been having the same conversation for months and every time it becomes heated, it is because we are having parallel conversations. We go round and round in circles and just get frustrated. So, today we finally figured out that we cannot solve it. Instead, we both communicated what we needed and promised each other to try. Since our conversations are parallel, the solutions have to be parallel as well. This might sound like a compromise, but really it’s solving two separate issues. We are both excited about putting this method into action.

3. “Repair Attempts” are the secret weapon of happy couples
Dr. Gottman describes the following as a repair attempt: a couple is having a discussion and things start to get tense. Both parties can feel it, and to diffuse the tension, they do something very specific to lighten the mood. Some couples make silly faces, others simply say “Let’s take five”. No matter what the repair attempt, someone must say something to prevent the following: increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and a surge of emotion. Any time this happens, our bodies are preparing to fight or flee. It doesn’t matter if the argument is as simple as whose turn it is to clean the bathroom – any conflict puts us on red alert for danger, especially if there is tension. By diffusing tension and keeping it respectful, happy couples avoid negativity in their discussions.

 

DR. GOTTMAN PREDICTS DIVORCE

There are seven clear signs that a couple is unhappy and either knows it or may not know it. These are included in the beginning of the book as a reference point for later advice. By reading it, I think they go in somewhat chronological order. In other words, it starts with 1 and escalates from there. Your mileage may vary. Not everyone has every problem on this list, and sometimes ALL couples have one or more of these problems. But, Dr. Gottman describes how to best handle it.

1. Getting off on the wrong foot with discussions
Frequently, when a discussion about a relationship begins, it is due to a conflict that needs to be resolved or some other issue. Many unhappy couples get off on the wrong foot by starting the conversation with hostility, sarcasm, accusatory tones, and negative statements. This automatically puts both parties in a negative space and it all goes downhill from there.

2. Dr. Gottman’s “The Four Horseman”
Just like in the fable, these four signs are negative ways of communicating. They do not happen in this order – rather they play “relay” with one another, and it goes back and forth like a handoff relay until things deteriorate to the point where one of the parties stops communicating altogether. All of these behaviors will be familiar to you – we all use them. It is important to recognize that these are not healthy ways of communicating.
-Criticism: Criticism is different from a complaint. Dr. Gottman defines a complaint as a statement about an isolated incident, whereas a criticism is defined as a statement about a person’s character or the overall personality of the person. Complaints are temporary and fixable, where as complaints wear on a person’s self-esteem and sense of value.
-Contempt: Many times, when we are angry, we are the following: cynical, mocking, hostile, sneering, eye-rolling, sarcastic, and name calling. All of these are examples of contempt. Any scenario where you intentionally demean your partner further lowers their sense of self-worth and puts him/her on the defensive. In addition, these behaviors are classified as abusive. For more information on this, see my post about the Power and Control Wheel.
-Defensiveness: This one is easy to understand – we have all done it. When we feel we are being attacked, we get defensive. The attacking party does not back down – rather our defensiveness just drives them into more of a frenzy. In addition, being defensive is a way of blaming your partner. It’s a way of saying – it’s not me, it’s actually you. If you feel yourself getting defensive in an argument, ask yourself what your partner is doing to make you feel as though you are being attacked.
-Stonewalling: Dr. Gottman describes stonewalling as literally turning into a stone wall – you become unresponsive and ignore your partner. Other people call this giving the cold shoulder or shutting someone out. What is happening is that one partner is emotionally retreating from the conversation and disengages altogether. This is sometimes a survival tactic in response to the onslaught of negative emotion coming from the partner in the conversation, or it can be a defense mechanism for someone who is feeling anxious. In any case, it is not productive and can be harmful to a relationship. Once stonewalling begins, the stonewaller becomes hyper-aware of any opportunity to stonewall again, for fear that the partner may have another hostile attack.

3. Flooding
Dr. Gottman describes flooding as an overwhelming burst of emotions… such as a dam breaking and a rush of water flooding an area. Suddenly, the person who feels flooded is so overcome by emotion that he or she disengages and feels lost for what to do. This is a common precursor to stonewalling. If you ever feel flooded in a conversation – either by your own anger or your partner’s hostility – it’s time for a repair attempt. Take a break! Dr. Gottman also warns that if both or one of the partners experience frequent flooding in the relationship, the couple could be in serious trouble.

4. What we don’t say out loud, our bodies do
Be mindful of certain body language in your posture and your partner’s posture. I am very cautious of this when I am talking to Dave, because I know that I can be very animated and give the wrong impression. As a general rule, I try to be very still when we are having a serious conversation, so that my emotions stay in check. The minute I start moving my hands around or pacing, I am well on my way to needing a repair attempt. Dave tends to pace when he gets very frustrated, and move his arms a lot. Some people take a step forward towards their partner when they are angry, or stand up while their partner is seated to gain a level of dominance in the conversation. Crossed arms, facial expressions, and closed-off body language all show signs of stonewalling. Eye contact and general posture are helpful hints, too. Learn your partner’s “tells” by watching what their body looks like when they speak. What do they look like when happy? Sad? Stressed? Irritated? Learn your partner’s unspoken communication.

5. Repair attempts… take two, three, four, and five…
Dr. Gottman explains what repair attempts are, but also explains that repeat failed repair attempts indicate that there is a communication breakdown, or a breakdown in the level of friendship and trust in the relationship. Even more so, as things get more heated, we are less and less likely to recognize a “verbal white flag” when our partner uses it. This happened just last night with Dave and I. We were having a discussion and we both felt frustrated. Neither one of us could get the other to understand, so we got more and more agitated. I tried several repair attempts: let’s take a break, let’s go outside… and Dave even suggested that we stop talking about it altogether. Nothing worked, because we were too wound up. We had a follow-up conversation today, and in a half hour we accomplished what we could not get done in two hours (or more) last night. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, everyone needs a 24-hour time-out. So, if you are trying these white flags and they are not working, consider a lengthy time out.

6. It’s a memory of a different color
Dr. Gottman explains that when couples have an abundance of negative emotion in their relationships, they literally re-write history. When asked about their pasts together, unhappy couples seem to remember (and attach significance to) their partner’s failures or bad behavior. Happy couples, on the other hand, remember the sweet and charming bits of relationship that are special to only them. Once a couple reaches this point, it can be very challenging to change that negative mindset. The cause for this, Dr. Gottman reasons, is that once each partner associates the other with negative emotions, that is what they come to expect out of said partner – and the relationship.

 

A FEW INTERESTING FACTS:

I came across these bits of information while I was reading, and found them fascinating. Check it out!

A study done on women and men who were spoken rudely to found that: all individuals have elevated heart rate and blood pressure. Men tended to maintain this reaction until they had a chance to confront the rude person. Women, on the other hand, calmed down in the interim and only had elevated blood pressure when pressured to confront the rude person. Keep this in mind when speaking with an angry man – sometimes his testosterone can get in the way of him thinking clearly.

As for that little statement – I apologize if it sounds sexist. It is not an opinion; it is a biological fact. Dr. Gottman points out that the higher the level of testosterone, the more likely a man is to be ready to fight a threat. Back in the caveman days, the best mates were the ones that could protect the group and their families. It would make sense, then, that the males that produced the highest levels of testosterone survived. And, too, that their offspring had a similar chemical makeup. Because men are so full of testosterone, they are always ready to go on an instinctual level. Since discussions and arguments can sometimes feel threatening, it makes sense that men have a tendency to get angry and stop communicating.

In a similar light, the women that were the most relaxed and calm produced the most breast milk and provided the most nutrients to their children. It would make sense, Dr. Gottman surmises, that as a result – the women who come from that beginning are more apt to be calm in the face of a crisis, and are used to nurturing others. This day and age, men and women are becoming more and more similar and equal, but on a biological level, they are relatively unchanged from thousands and thousands of years ago.

Dr. Gottman also describes what he calls “positive sentiment override” and “negative sentiment override”. In this case, override means that the sentiment overrides whatever else is going on. If a couple has positive sentiment override, it means that even in the face of stress, the partners will have positive thoughts about one another the majority of the time. This is especially helpful if one of the partner’s is having a bad day or being a bit snippy. Happy couples are much more likely to give their partners the benefit of the doubt and not take slight rudeness personally. On the contrary, negative sentiment override colors everything in a bad light – even the good stuff. A thoughtful gesture from the partner may make the other wonder what he or she wants. A slight change in tone may send the partner into a frenzy about what a jerk he or she is. Try to maintain a positive sentiment in your relationship by fostering friendship, mutual respect, kindness, and affection.

 

That’s all for this post! Up next – the first in the seven principles: “love maps” – the area of your brain where you store information about your partner! Stay tuned!

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