Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last

By John Gottman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, 234 pages, $13.00.

Reviewed by Justin Barker, B.S., Loyola College, Baltimore Maryland

In the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last, Psychologist John Gottman explains that this book is the result of a culmination of twenty years of scientific research on the relationship dynamics of married couples. He discusses the current upward trend in divorce rates among recent first marriages and the paucity of scientific evidence explaining the dissolution of these matrimonial bonds. Gottman suggests that in the past, the vast majority of books of advice to couples have been based solely upon the insights of experienced marital therapists according to anecdotal or theoretical musings. Gottman states very clearly that most contemporary research findings on marriage are "flawed".

Therefore, over the last two decades Gottman and his research teams have come up with solid scientific procedures that have examined both stable and troubled marriages, systematically tracing the emotional undercurrents that cause some couples to stay together and others to drift apart. As reported by Gottman, the purpose of this book is to, "share our latest results with you and to offer my best understanding of just how you can strengthen your marriage" (p.16).

The author suggests that his book is geared to assist all those who are single and contemplating marriage, couples who are happily married, and couples who are struggling in a difficult marriage. I would suggest that much of what Dr. Gottman writes about in this book is applicable anyone who would like to increase the quality of his or her interpersonal relationships regardless of marital plans or status. His book provides many insightful and research supported methods for improving communication in interpersonal situations. The ideas presented in this book certainly are not limited to those who are married.

Gottman begins by presenting and clarifying three types of stable marriages that he discovered through his research. In a validating marriage style, couples compromise often and calmly workout their problems to mutual satisfaction as they arise. In a conflict-avoiding marriage style couples agree to disagree, rarely confronting their differences head-on. Finally, in a volatile marriage style frequent conflicts erupt resulting in passionate disputes. Gottman argues that contrary to popular belief, any one of these three marriage styles can lead to a long lasting and satisfying marital relationship. The author provides in depth descriptions of each marriage style including illustrative anecdotes and case study vignettes from his own practice as a psychologist. Finally, Gottman provides the reader with a self-test to diagnose his or her own marriage style.

Interestingly, while it is important for a marriage to settle into one of the three stable marriage styles it is not the most crucial element to the successful marital relationship. According to Gottman's research, the key to a blissful marriage is not found in the marriage style itself, but in a simple mathematical formula. "No matter what style of marriage you have, you must have at least five times as many positive as negative moments together if your marriage is to be stable" (p. 29).

What really separates contented couples from those in marital misery is a healthy balance of five positive interactions to one negative interaction toward each other. As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between a husband and a wife as there is negative, the marriage is likely to be stable. Based upon this ratio, Gottman reports that he is able to predict with better than 90% accuracy whether or not couples are likely to divorce. How is it that couples with a volatile relationship are able to remain stable over time? Gottman suggests that while these couples may yell and scream a lot, they spend at least five times as much of their marriage being loving and making up. These three successful marital styles are equally successful because they allow very different kinds of couples to maintain this crucial ratio of positives and negatives. Moreover, the author provides nine specific ways in which a couple can increase the number of positive interactions in their marriage.

Gottman also found in his research that there are two styles of unstable marriages, the hostile/engaged marriage style and the hostile/detached marriage style. Like volatile couples, the hostile/engaged couples arguments are frequent and intense. However, they differ from the volatile couples in that insults, name-calling, putdowns, and sarcasm are a part of their interactions. Couples who are of the hostile/detached sort, also scream and yell at each other, but they don't listen to what one another really says nor do they look at each other very often. They are detached, emotionally uninvolved, and defensive toward one another. Gottman believes that these two marital styles are part of the recipe for marital disaster.

The aforementioned marriage styles are unstable simply because they are overrun with negativity and do not maintain the magic ratio of 5 to 1. Gottman believes that there are four common warning signs that will appear in these marriages. He refers to these warning signs as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman provides detailed definitions and real life examples of each of these warning signs. He also provides the reader with a self-test to gauge whether or not each of these warning signs are present in his or her own interaction style.

Also of interest, Gottman discusses in detail his unprecedented research on how men and women respond to one another during " marital arguments" based upon their unique physiology. He talks about the idea of flooding or becoming physiologically overwhelmed during a fight and being unable to communicate effectively. He demonstrates how to tell if you are becoming flooded and how to avoid flooding in the future.

Additionally, Gottman does a nice job of explicating the biological and social differences between men and women and how these differences need to be recognized and accounted for in a romantic relationship. He provides an interesting social development theory for why men tend to have more difficulty in emotionally charged arguments. Gottman's ideas are insightful and should provide couples with a helpful understanding of the idiosyncratic differences between men and women.

After much of the material regarding martial styles is presented, Gottman provides the reader with a self-test that is designed to diagnose his or her marital style by summarizing all of the self-tests taken up to this point. Gottman then makes suggestions based upon the results about how to remedy any problems that the reader's individual marital style may pose.

The final two chapters are dedicated to providing simple strategies for improving the marital relationship. Essentially, Gottman attempts to teach the reader how to be an effective and empathic listener with his or her spouse. He discusses the value of empathy, reflective listening, non-defensiveness, non-verbal communication, and some cognitive-behavioral type exercises. In the final chapter, Gottman presents numerous research-based suggestions for continuing to strengthen your marriage once you have reached marital stability.

Overall this is an excellent book. It provides keen insight and research-based suggestions on how to improve relationships. It is well organized, follows a clear outline and is well written with plenty of easy definitions and illustrative real life examples. The self-tests are helpful and keep the reader engaged in what he or she is learning. Gottman's remedies are practical, useful, insightful, and research based.

The very nature of this book lends itself to use in bibliotherapy. In terms of psychotherapy, the book would be integrated if marital/relationship problems were being discussed. The degree of marital distress would determine how much this book is used. For example, if the client is experiencing only transitory troubles within his or her marriage, the psychotherapist may recommend to the client to read the book at his or her leisure. Thus, the book might provide some insight to the client in helping them understand their relationship and how to improve it. However, if this area is a major focus of treatment, the book could be used more extensively. The clinician may assign chapters one or several at a time for the client to read and these would be discussed in the following session. For example, Chapter 3 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which discusses the different types of negativity that pervade in disaster-prone marriages could be assigned if the client was experiencing significant problems with his or her partner. Thus, the book would be discussed in greater detail with the client and could be used as a resourceful tool in psychotherapy. In addition, the self-tests previously discussed could also be used directly in psychotherapy. For example, the clinician may work with the client in interpreting and elucidating the results of the self-tests providing greater insight for both therapist and client.

As mentioned previously, Gottman is a psychologist by trade and as such, he has an affinity for creating and defining his own jargon. Readers who are not used to digesting psychology related material might become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of new terminology and definitions that they have to learn. Also, some sections provide detailed descriptions of Gottman's research methodology and protocol. While other psychologists and scientists may appreciate this gesture, the average reader may view this as boring and irrelevant.

In summary, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is experiencing relationship difficulties or to those who are helping others with relationship issues. I believe that the benefit of this book over the many others in the same genre is its strong research foundation.