Gottman's Marriage Killers

Updated: 6 days ago

“A romantic and sexual long-term committed relationship with another human remains the greatest gift life can offer” - John M Gottman PH.D. 'The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.'

The greatest gift life can offer. It’s worth giving that some thought. I have, and it is certainly the case for me. I can honestly say I have found no other aspect of my life more satisfying, rewarding, healing, grounding, stabilising, exciting and fulfilling than my now nearly twenty-year long relationship with my beautiful husband Russell. Our relationship has brought me back to life and I don’t say that lightly. It has taught me to see in colour when I used to see in black and white, helped me live in my body, to truly feel where before I existed in thought alone. It has soothed a nervous system set to high alert, helped me relax my shoulders, soften my gaze, and find joy in the everyday. And I deserved it after what I’d been through.

I’ll tell you a sad story. Back in 1994 I was fifteen and visiting my father in a mountainous, rural region of Spain. I was so young, naïve, and vulnerable. We were drinking strong Spanish winter beer late into the evening, in a plaza, in a tiny village sat atop the Ribera d’Ebre.

There was a band playing and it was very busy.

As no loving father would, he allowed me to drink a lot and be taken by car by a middle-aged man to his place of residence. I remember nothing but waking up alone and ashamed there the next morning. I had to ask this strange old man to drive me back to my fathers place in the mountains and I had no idea where I was or how to get there. I was so afraid and believe to this day I was guided home by some loving and graceful force.

When he pulled up at my father’s house somewhere deep in the Catalonian hills my father slowly approached the car. When the man handed me over my father jovially told him, ‘Don’t worry Fritz, we will laugh about this one day!’ Something broke in me that morning. It took me almost three decades, a strong marriage, and a profoundly loving husband to heal. I have though. Fuck you, Geoffrey.

Many of my clients over the years have come from similarly abusive parents. I once worked with a beautiful young woman who had held her hands over her younger siblings ears to protect them from hearing their mother being raped in the next room by men she was being pimped out to by their father.

Of course, most people are much luckier than this and escape such horrors thank goodness. But many still come from broken homes or parents who argued endlessly. Almost all of my clients are in trouble in their relationships when they come to see me and the statistics on divorce tell us clearly that many of us do not know what we are doing when it comes to creating sane and loving partnerships. We don’t know how to make our marriages flourish and that is a tragedy for everyone.

So, why tell my sad story, or the sad stories that I have been privileged enough to hear? Because I have come to believe that most of us long to become someone’s chosen one. Picked out from the crowd as special despite the competition. We are each perhaps a bit hungry to be seen as the vulnerable, fragile, and sometimes loathsome beings we really are behind closed doors and have our special someone stick around regardless. When they do it is magic for our weary souls.

In order for this to happen both parties need to know a few simple rules. Some attitudes and behaviours that need not to happen if the relationship is going to stand the test of time. And that is where The Gottman’s come in.

If you are in a serious relationship and you have not discovered the American psychologist John M. Gottman PH.D. and his scientific studies on relationships yet, you are missing a major trick. This lovely man can predict with 91% accuracy, after watching couples in his ‘love lab’ for a short period of time, whether they will succeed as a couple or not. He does this by monitoring their vital signs whilst observing how they argue. Over decades he has identified with staggering accuracy which negative attitudes and behaviours spell trouble for couples. He has also identified many positive principles to adopt should you want to ensure your partnership remains stable but I’m going to focus on the negative traits today and cover the latter next week.

If you would like to learn more about his work head on over to:

Or order his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work here:

When Gottman discusses how he has come to predict divorce he talks about certain types of negative interactions. He tells us that some of these forms of negativity are so harmful to the relationship that if they show up often, they prove fatal for the couple. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because they signal the end of the partnership. Here we go:

  1. Criticism. Gottman is quick to state that we will all have complaints about our spouses over the years and day to day and encourages us to discuss these things. He goes on to suggest however that a complaint, which is specific and clearly about an action or event and can be addressed, as different to a global expression of negativity related to someone’s character or personality: “Are you mad? Why do you never pay attention when I am talking?” Criticism is quite common in relationships so don’t panic; this is not necessarily a sign you are headed for divorce. Gottman does say however that if criticism is present often it can lead to Horseman number two which is far deadlier to relationships.

  2. Contempt. This is often as a result of feelings of superiority over your partner and also a sign of disrespect. This is expressed with things like sarcasm or cynicism and shows up with things like sneering, eye-rolling, name-calling, and hostility and conveys disgust which is devastating to the relationship. Gottman suggests contempt often arises from long standing negative thoughts about our partners and says we are more likely to have these thoughts when issues remain unresolved. This aggressive and hostile attitude is a sort of psychological cancer that must be addressed if the relationship is to stand a chance.

  3. Defensiveness. I am sure we have all reacted defensively to criticism before, but research shows that this is not an effective stance to take when dealing with conflict. My favourite is something along the lines of: “I’m cold?! What about you? It’s not like you are being that warm right now!” Gottman suggests that if these three horsemen gallop into our relationships they will bring about a toxic blend of hopelessness and unhappiness that often leads to the fourth and final horseman and potentially the end of our relationships.

  4. Stonewalling. This occurs when the first three horsemen doom the couple to failure in their discussions and one of the partners switches off or tunes out. Again, I am sure most of us have experienced this and it is painful. A long fight that contains criticism, contempt and defensiveness exhausts or overwhelms and someone storms off or simply goes silent. It is a sort of turning away from the other in a final act of dysfunctional self-preservation. You attempt to avoid the fight but in doing so avoid the partnership. Stonewalling usually shows up towards the end of a marriage, it is a bad place as nothing can now be discussed and solutions cannot be identified.

‘When a marriage gets to the point where the couple have rewritten their history, when their minds and bodies make it virtually impossible to communicate and repair their current problems, their relationship is almost bound to fail without the right help. The partners find themselves constantly on red alert. Because they always expect to do combat, the marriage becomes a torment. The understandable result: they withdraw from the relationship.’ - John M. Gottman PH.D. 'The Seven Principles of Making Marriages Work.'

At this stage affairs happen. The partnership is so unstable and hopeless that the end is almost unavoidable. The signs of trouble would have started much further back but not enough was done to reverse the trends of negativity.

Heavy stuff I know, but the good news is that even if you are in deep waters, steps can be taken to improve the way things are. In order to do this, one of the first and most effective things I would suggest you do is to look within yourself and at your behaviour within your relationship. Start asking the serious question, what am I guilty of in terms of the above attitudes and behaviours? Stop looking at your partner, immediately. Just look at the part you have to play in the day-to-day drama that occurs and take responsibility for stopping. But, but, but you might say, he is so uncaring, or she is such a drag. No buts, all those things may be true, but you are responsible for addressing the negativity within you because it is killing your chances of success.

I spent years mulling over Russell’s faults, like Gollum, alone in his cave with his precious. I was consumed with endless thoughts of how he was wronging me, and I was sick. Let’s say that again, I was sick. It came to me in a single moment of clarity a long time ago now that this tendency for inner negativity was my problem, not his. I had to learn to look for his strengths and how often he did things that were supportive and caring. Dropping this negativity transformed our relationship almost overnight. I still watch for it now. Anytime I find my thoughts turn bad, I spot it and let it go, it does not help, ever. If I am upset about something I say so, without hostility and we find solutions. It is fantastic. We have both come to trust our individual capacity for addressing potential problems within the relationship and moving through them without attacking each other. What a monumental relief!

“The quality of our closest relationships, more than any other factor, determines our physical health, resistance to disease, and longevity. Satisfying close relationships also improve various dimensions of each partner’s mental health. Happy marriages or long-term relationships can significantly reduce depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, and antisocial behaviour, and reduce incidents of suicide.”- John M Gottman PH.D. 'The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.'

So, there you have it, if you want to live longer, sort your marriage out. Focus on what you bring to the table that is suboptimal and stop doing it.

Lastly, if you are now or ever have been someone who is frightened of being abandoned, becoming someone who is sane enough to stay with is a psychological journey worth taking. I would highly recommend it.

If you found this helpful, I’ll be following it up with The Gottman Institute’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work so please do check that out!

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