7 Research-Backed Tips for Making Your Marriage Work

Set yourself up for a happy marriage with this advice from Dr. John Gottman.
Valerie Nikolas - The Knot Contributor.
by Valerie Nikolas
Valerie Nikolas - The Knot Contributor.
Valerie Nikolas
The Knot Contributor
  • Valerie is a freelance contributor for The Knot Worldwide.
  • In addition to journalistic writing, Valerie also works as a marketing copywriter.
  • Valerie has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
Updated Jan 02, 2022

When you're planning a wedding, it's easy to get bogged down in the details. Between tracking down Aunt Mary's new address, choosing between berry- or wine-colored bridesmaids dresses and quadruple-checking that you emailed the florist, it's easy to lose sight of what really matters: knowing how to make a marriage work.

Setting the foundation for an emotionally healthy marriage may not sound as fun as choosing your wedding playlist or buying your dress. But whether you're in the throes of planning or you're still riding the post-wedding high, familiarizing yourself with strategies for fostering a healthy relationship is a wise choice.

"I recommend couples spend as much time planning for their marriage as they do planning for their wedding," says relationship expert Vagdevi Meunier, a licensed clinical psychologist, co-founder of the Austin-based Center for Relationships, and master trainer for the Gottman Institute and National Marriage Seminars.

Meunier says the early years of a marriage are critical for setting the tone for the rest of the relationship. Investing early in what experts call your "emotional bank account" can help you and your partner avoid marital problems now and in the future. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information backed by years of psychological research that can set you up for a successful marriage. Take a look.

Gottman's Research on Healthy Couples

Dr. John Gottman is a world-renowned psychologist whose work revolutionized the study of marriage. He and his wife, Julie, are basically the ultimate marriage gurus. Gottman's research began in the 1970s, studying behavioral characteristics and physiological responses in groups of newlywed couples. Through his findings, he was able to predict with 94 percent accuracy which couples would be together and which would break up within six years.

The culmination of these years of paradigm-shifting research are published in Gottman's famous book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which explains the concepts, behaviors and skills that guide couples on the path to a good marriage. Integral to Gottman's theories is the belief that marriages are built by the small, day-to-day interactions that serve to either strengthen its foundation or tear it down.

Avoiding the Four Horsemen

Gottman's Four Horsemen are behaviors that can lead to a relationship's demise and, oftentimes, a divorce. Recognizing and minimizing these behaviors is essential for building a healthy relationship.

1. Criticism

Complaints are normal parts of everyday interactions, but they can turn toxic when they're used to attack a partner's character. Criticism is often the gateway for the more destructive horsemen.

2. Defensiveness

Often a reaction to criticism, defensiveness is when one partner takes on a victim mentality or makes excuses for their behaviors. It contributes to a breakdown in communication, where the person voicing the complaint doesn't feel heard.

3. Stonewalling

Just as it sounds, stonewalling is when one partner shuts down or refuses to engage with the other. This happens when a person is in a state of emotional flooding, and it may not be done with malicious intent. Still, it prevents a healthy discussion from taking place.

4. Contempt

This is the most dangerous of the horsemen and, Meunier says, "the No. 1 predictor of divorce." When one partner treats another with contempt, they're talking down to them from a place of superiority and using sarcasm, ridicule or other forms or mocking to make the other person feel inferior.

The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work

According to Gottman, a happy marriage is built on seven primary principles:

1. Share love maps.

In the dating phase, we're curious about our partner and want to learn everything about them. From which side of the pineapple-on-pizza debate they're on to how their upbringing influenced their personality, we're constantly building and updating a database about our partner that contributes to a feeling of emotional intimacy. According to Meunier, "happy couples maintain interest and curiosity in one another and are learning about each other constantly."

2. Nurture fondness and admiration.

Maintain positivity toward your partner, both internally and externally. Meunier says it's important to "catch them doing something right"—and let them know you're doing so. Trashing your partner in your head makes it easy to seek what you feel is missing elsewhere, which can open the door to dissatisfaction and infidelity.

3. Turn toward each other instead of away.

Sharing common experiences, no matter how big or small, is a great way to strengthen your relationship. When your partner makes a bid for connection, they are asking for attention, affection or affirmation. Bids can be little things, like a smile or a wink, or more complex things, like asking for help. When one partner makes a bid, the other can either turn toward, away or against. Turning toward your partner contributes to a mutual sense of emotional intimacy and is likely to help both of you feel secure.

4. Let your partner influence you.

Accepting influence is about being an active participant in shared decision-making by listening with curiosity to your partner's point of view, avoiding defensiveness and finding ways to validate your partner, even if you don't agree with them in the moment.

5. Solve your solvable problems.

Not all issues are able to be resolved, but some issues, such as division of housework or how often you have sex, can be solvable (even if they don't always seem so). The key is approaching these issues without resorting to using the Four Horsemen.

6. Overcome gridlock.

Marriage is about blending two lives, so not every problem will have an easy solution. Sometimes fundamental personality traits or beliefs will cause ongoing friction. Overcoming gridlock is about determining if there are issues that are blocking your progress, and taking steps to address them—which may include therapy or other mediation.

7. Create shared meaning.

This principle goes beyond day-to-day partnership to how you create a shared and meaningful life through rituals, goals and symbols. "How do you go through time and space celebrating and sharing traditions?" Meunier says. "These things add up over time for a feeling of togetherness and cohesion. They're the glue that holds a couple together."

Incorporating Gottman's Principles in Your Marriage

Meunier recommends several options for couples looking to strengthen their relationship, the first of which is educating both spouses about these principles. Read additional articles, have discussions or check out Gottman's book.

Couples looking for an additional layer of support might want to look into a marriage counselor or a retreat based on Gottman's theories. "Gottman-based therapy is practical, hands off, experiential and research-based," Meunier says. "It includes measurable goals and indicators of success."

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