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        John Gottman
          Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

 

"…my Seven Principles make the secrets of marital success available to all couples."
—John Gottman, page 24

   For several decades, John Gottman has been watching couples interact at the Family Research Laboratory in Seattle. Using video cameras, one-way mirrors, and body sensors, Gottman and his associates have collected a wealth of data in their Love Lab.

   In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John makes the rather astounding claim quoted above. The essence of Gottman's book can be reduced to aThe Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman syllogism: successful couples behave like x; if you behave like x, you will be successful; I can teach x to you. The Seven Principles purports to be x.

   Selling love used to be done on street corners and in the parlors of tarot card readers, but since the 1940s in the United States, it has been the province of psychologists. Indeed, the last three words in Gottman's title—Making Marriage Work—was the title of a popular psychologist's column from over half a century ago.

   Though psychological advice from that era has been largely discredited, the claim that psychologists can fix relationships, rekindle love, and so forth, persists to this day. In 1976 John Gottman published A Couple's Guide to Communication. Like the present book, that book was based on clinical research involving hundreds of couples. Today, however, Gottman calls that book's premise--that communication is the key to a happy marriage--a "myth." That approach, he says, doesn't work (pp. 8-11, p. 17).

   In many ways, John Gottman's career recapitulates the career of many psychologists. The relationship cure we were selling a decade ago and two decades ago doesn't work. But the cure we are selling this year really does.

   There are many reasons why John's present book won't make a dent in the divorce rate.

   The first problem is what John claims as seven principles comes down to hundreds and hundreds of things to do with someone you already have a problem with. If you can't get your husband to stop throwing his underwear on the floor, what chance do you have getting him through Gottman's first principle, which involves doing multiple exercises containing 116 items.

   If you are still speaking to each other after that, it's on to principle two (140 items) and principle three (142 more). Many of the items sound like idea generators from junior high English class (write about your most embarrassing moment, ideal job, favorite holiday, etc.).

   Others are likewise hackneyed, such as the survival exercise. If you have been to a management seminar or teacher's in-service in the last 40 years, you've already done that one. Some are so far from being age appropriate, like building a construction paper tower with your partner, they are ludicrous.

   You get the idea. Gottman's system is way too complex to be practical, workable, or widely used. Or even used at all.

   The second reason this book and ones like it won't affect the divorce rate is claiming a fix for relationships simply creates more bad


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"The more relevant the topic, the less precision the psychologist can bring to bear on it."
                             —Sheldon Litt, psychologist

relationships. Problems in a relationship should be a warning sign. Don't go forward. But psychologists who claim there is a fix change warning signs into things which can be "worked on" after the marriage.

   If you buy computer software, it tells you clearly on the package what the system requirements are. For this software you need a computer with so much memory, a chip of a certain speed, and so on. But John doesn't list the system requirements for his system. He says it works for all couples (italics his).

   That sounds like he is taking the side of preserving all marriages, a noble idea. What it actually does is take the side of the abuser, the cheater, and the alcoholic against the innocent party. By not clearly stating system requirements for this book, the author preys on the emotionally vulnerable and those at an emotionally vulnerable time in their lives.

   In addition, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is just plain unscientific. A scientist would look at the history of a relationship and determine if there was a foundation for a marriage present from the beginning. But John assumes there must be some generic condition called love at the beginning of a relationship, and so all relationships can be preserved.

   In essence, he is saying you can ignore the reasons why you actually got married. That is like saying if you married the last person you dated, or the one before that, or the one before that, it doesn't matter. John promises you "marital success" no matter who you married.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

   The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work fails on many levels. Above all it is a prime example of what psychologist Sheldon Litt calls The Relevance / Precision Paradox. What Litt means is that many people assume psychology holds the key to solving all human misery.

   Actually, Litt says, psychology is a very rudimentary discipline. Psychologists can speak with precision only in certain areas with very little relevance to human life, and the more important a topic is to us, the less reliable is the psychologist's information.

   And that is really the problem with this book. John Gottman's argument comes down to a defective syllogism:
   —All zebras have stripes.
   —If you had stripes, you would be a zebra.
   —I've got a bucket of paint.


Sources:

• The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver (Three Rivers/Random House, 1999).

• "The Psychologist's Fallacy--and Other Pitfalls" by Sheldon Litt. (Positive Health Magazine, April/May 1997)

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