The Key to a Good Marriage

Psychologist John Gottman has a crazy party trick: He can watch a married couple interacting and then predict with 94 percent certainty whether they will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Intense, right? Well, in a recent Atlantic article, Gottman revealed the key to a good marriage…

John Gottman says: “[Happy couples] are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. [Unhappy couples] are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there…

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together…There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise.

Fascinating, right? It can be easy to spot negative things (dirty dishes! late arrival to the restaurant!), but actively looking for things to appreciate is such a great habit to build. Everyone knows that relationships are hard work during tough times, but this article helped me realize that it’s good to work on marriage all the time, even when things are going well. I love the idea of creating a culture of goodwill and purposefully striving to see your partner through rose-colored glasses. I’m going to try to be more conscious of this. My mom once told me that Dr. Phil says marriage and family should be a “soft place to fall.” What a lovely visual.

Thoughts? Do you strive to be kind in your relationship? Have you ever been in a critical relationship? You feel like you’re walking on eggshells! Read the full Atlantic article here, if you’d like.

This is part of a series called “What We’re Reading“—featuring interesting articles on different topics we find during the week. I know most of you are big readers. Hope you like it!

P.S. The little things, and how to keep the spark alive.

(Photo of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward)

  1. Susana Silva says...

    OMG this is such a relief post for me.I can never thank you enough Joanna.I’ve been separated for four and half years now and I was the one who decided to break up. I’ve always felt guilty,specially because I have a son.I still love my father’s son but he is really difficult to deal with,sometimes he feels close and protective,the next moment he feels active destructive as Gottman would point out.And this happened in the same conversation.I’ve been told by many people that men are like this and that he is like this and is never going to change.Well,according to Gottman’s research he REALLY should as I tried very hard to understand and excuse his oblivious behaviour as I was really kind to him.

  2. Kelly says...

    I love this article. My fiancé and I try SO hard to find small things to thank one another for. If I do the grocery shopping or he walk the dogs, we ALWAYS make it a point to say thank you about it.
    To me, being grateful to one another is definitely glue to any relationship.
    I believe it makes things much easier. Imagine coming home from a hard day, and you significant other giving you a simple thank you for cleaning out the coffee pot before you left the house? :)

  3. I really want John to look at my wife and me and tell me if we are going to break or live happily :)
    Jokes apart, a happy couple appreciates surroundings and environment

  4. Marriage can be a very difficult transition for many. I really like the advice that you gave though. Something that really stuck out to me, was that you mentioned to make sure to be honest. That is something that really seems simple but can be overlooked. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  5. Thank you so much Joanna for sharing this article. I am looking forward to more of your articles recommendation.

  6. Beautifully kind article xoxo

  7. This is such good, simple advice. Thank you for the reminder!

  8. Whoa! I just happened to be reading Gottman’s “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” right now! He really puts it into perspective, that 60% of happily married couples have conflicts that are unresolvable (perpetual). It’s how you work with these conflicts, move around them, and diffuse through them with small daily gestures of mutual respect, kindness, and admiration that keep those unalterable conflicts from overburdening your relationship.

    Glad to see Gottman is getting some attention! More people need to know that making a marriage work is not how you deal with conflict, but how your friendship overrides the conflict you do have.

    The Shaded Acorn

  9. Thank you for posting this article! It resonates with me so much as a new parent (our Charlie is 11 months old). My husband and I are constantly finding ways that this new person in our lives has changed our dynamic. Between the sleep deprivation and demands of daily life (work, household, parenting), sometimes there is a lack of kindness and active constructive responding. I will be sure to keep these thoughts in mind!

  10. N says...

    This is so great in theory, but can be difficult in practice. I recently found myself falling into the critical rut with my husband. So, I downloaded an app called “one day” on my iPhone and started inputting everything he did and tagging it as good or bad. For example, asking me how my day was or making me a cup of tea would be good things. Bad may be late for dinner. Within a week, I realized I had 52 good things and only 5 bad ones! This practice made me so appreciative of him and in the end found I wasn’t even upset about the bad things. Notice what you notice!

  11. I love this article, so true. Find the way it is reported unusual though, considering it’s about the way to build a good marriage through appreciation and respect, seems sad the reporter chose to use the phrase “chimed in Julie Gottman” as this suggests she interupted her husband when I imagine she “added” to the conversation. I assume it comes from missunderstanding the phrase than a poor reflection on the couple’s communication!

  12. I think the idea of working on kindness and compassion, rather than just assuming some people have these qualities or not, is very important. This article discusses the idea of noticing and responding to your partner’s “bids” for attention–responding to their little gestures or comments rather than ignoring or dismissing them–as a predictor of whether a relationship will last, which is very interesting, too.

  13. I had two lightbulb moments in terms of relationships. the first was shortly after my husband and I started going out, and we would jokingly put each other down. A friend saw this and said “Why would you disparage someone you love?” and it really stuck with me. We both stopped (I think it was Maya Angelou who said something similar about always smiling at your family, rather than being nice to perfect strangers and being grouchy with the people you love).
    The second was that the key to love is giving, the more you give to someone, the more you’ll love them, be that by spending time with them, or doing small things. If you’re feeling annoyed with or unconnected with your partner/spouse (or anyone actually), do a small act of kindness like making them a cup of tea, or letting them pick the film. My husband and I try to do this, acting selflessly and kindly with each other, rather than selfishly. It makes such an unbelievable difference

  14. I can be so critical of my husband, and it’s something that upsets me constantly. I try often to focus more on all of the amazing things he does every day, but it’s not my nature, and it’s something I need to be reminded to work on constantly because he really is amazing and so hard working.

  15. Thanks for sharing! What a great article and good reminder to be intentional.

  16. It’s so interesting to read this, and so true I think. I love the idea of people being so in love they continue to see each other in that light.

  17. Forgot to say that it was taken from Olivia Lichtenstein’s Mrs. Zhivago of Queen’s Park’

  18. I’ve got a recipe to a good marriage shared in one of my posts:

    250g love
    250g humour
    250g sexual attraction
    500ml admiration and respect for
    one another
    500g intellectual parity
    1 small pinch of in-laws, unless
    to your taste, in which case add
    1 reasonable budget
    A generous dash of team work
    4 tsp. readiness to admit fault
    250g quick and easy apology
    250g each confidence and encouragement
    1 large or several small interests or hobbies in common
    250g delight in each other
    Separate bathrooms (budget permitting)

    Sift all ingredients and remove any lumps of jealousy, accounting of wrongs, grudge bearing, point scoring, temper or accusation. Stir in frequent portions of healthy and satisfying marital sex. Pour into generous servings of love and bake over many years in the steady warmth of affection, mutual respect and desire.

  19. thank you so much for posting this! just what i needed today.. thank you!!

  20. I think that looking for the positive in anyone’s behavior or for the good in anyone’s actions is a really good thing to start modeling for our children too. There is no question that it’s important for the success of a marriage or romantic relationship, but it’s also important for the success of any relationship -even work related.

  21. I studied one of his books in college, and loved his thoughts on marriage. He also said that if a couple can talk about their early days of dating with fondness they are more likely to work through problems than couples who can’t. Always thought that was interesting!

  22. I loved this article! When I read the part about a partner making a request to connect, and turning towards our partner making that bid, it reminded me of your Motherhood Monday with Mara Kofoed, where she talked about how beautiful it can be to offer and exchange kindness with your partner, even when things are not great. I have been trying to be more mindful of that and be inspired by her idea of being motivated by love.

  23. nice interesting article…makes lots of sense! thanks for sharing!

  24. Thanks for posting, Joanna! It was great to read the whole article.

  25. What a thoughtful piece! I try and say thank you to my partner daily especially for the small things like taking the garbage out before its over flowing. Another thing I read that we now practice is a 10 second hug a day. It helps stimulate dopamin in the brain and makes you feel happier and more connected. Try it!

    xo Donna

  26. As a marriage and family therapy student, John Gottman is sort of an idol. The work he has done with couples is AMAZING, and the accuracy with which he and his labbies can predict divorce is eerie. He’s got some good, user-friendly books out – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a good one!

    Also, contempt is the worst of what he calls, delightfully, the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the others are criticism, stonewalling (shutting down), and defensiveness.

    Also also – he found that healthy couples tend to have 5 positive interactions for 1 negative interaction; unhealthy couples have a ratio closer to 1:1.

  27. I just read the whole article. So interesting. The big take away for me was that intent was good no matter how poorly executed.

  28. J says...

    I needed this today!!! Thank you so much :)

  29. I highly recommend reading his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It’s a great read, whether you’re in a happy place or not. My husband and I read it during a hard time. We’re through it now, but we still pick it up and do the exercises on occasion just because they can be fun.

  30. This article. Thank you.

  31. This is so true! I think never forgetting to say “Thank you” is in the same spirit. I have also read that happy couples rate physical contact (hugging, kissing, cuddling, etc) higher than sex, which I thought was super interesting. Thanks so much for sharing!

  32. I LOVE this…so true and helpful! Thanks!!

  33. This is interesting and seems almost too simple. Sometimes I think my husband might find it a little korny, but I do thank him for even the smallest things, so he knows that they haven’t gone unnoticed or unappreciated. But I agree with Lauren Knight, I feel terribly uncomfortable with couples who correct each other, interrupt each other, and pick at each other, or sometimes just outright criticize each other, in front of other people.

  34. mba makes a really good point! Yes we all need to work on being kinder, and I totally agree with the article. However, we should also work on communicating this idea to our partners to make sure we are BOTH being treated right. If someone is abusive or critical and we say ‘I’m going to let this go and not criticize their behaviour’ that can end in a bad relationship as well. We need to be able to communicate when something bothers us, but in a much more constructive way.

  35. I’m going to try this. I wish there was a little more HOW in it though haha sometimes the mind is just trained to be a jerk!


  36. Absolutely. I experience this everyday in my marriage. Kindness, appreciation (or vice-versa) is a habit and becomes second-nature the longer you do it.

    The best place to learn guitar –

  37. I’ve been married for 6 years. We’ve quickly learned that vulnerable communication between the two of us makes things run so much smoother. When I really hear his heart and understand the why behind him, it helps me partner with him in everything we do, instead of working against one another. Thanks for this post!

  38. I studied marriage and family at university and Gottman was my hero! Thanks for sharing this. I really needed it!

  39. Jo, I love love love this series! It’s like an online book club :)

    “a soft place to fall” – YES! So true. Also love the idea of working on the kindness muscle!

  40. A very thoughtful and thought provoking article.. I have been married twice and both for over 24 years.. In my first marriage I tried to see the best of everything and everyone and it worked to make a marriage last as long as it did producing five wonderful children… in my second marriage, being in an adult relationship without producing our own children, we had to cope with living and learning how to manage a relationship and it was hard… but trying to see the best, thanking and being thoughtful, really went a very long way to us being together 24 years later** Life is as hard or as happy as you decide.. even with problems, if you are both facing the facts together, it makes it easier to deal with.. keep a happy smile and a heartfelt look when you say thank you and the whole day lightens up… I think that this goes a long way to making a happy marriage… and also in a long relationship there are ups and downs, but always the downs are followed by the ups.. you just have to hang on in there until they appear again!!

  41. I loved this article too and your dr Phil quote. I know I’m guilty of criticizing too often. I like the visual of kindness being a muscle. Thanks for showing this. I added to my blog for tomorrow’s weekend round up.

  42. So true! My husband and I try to out love each other every day. We say thank you so much that I’m sure we make people roll their eyes, but I don’t care at all. We are each other’s biggest fans, and home should always feel safe and full of support.
    My MIL was recently in town. She’s been married (and divorced) 5 times now, and she was saying to my husband that she doesn’t think she’ll ever find what we have. I think the main reason is that she’s so critical and passive aggressive, and that’s going to kill any relationship. It puts a huge strain on her relationships with her children too. It’s so hard to see someone you care about consistently choose to sabotage their relationships.

  43. It reminds me this text you spotted some weeks ago : . Shoudnt we try to apply this to our relationships too ? Instead of being overly positive, recognize the wholeness of life and relationships. Be true to ourselves and see the positive and the negative of everything.
    Well, of course while trying to stay respectful.
    My question stays open as I’m always torn between “being true to my feelings” and “focusing on happy”

  44. It sounds so simple, and yet we all find it complicated to put it in practice… But it’s nice to have a reminder on what we should do from time to time. This is the reason why I love going to wedding and the part where , here in Romania, they tell us at the city hall, what marriage is about….

    Here is another interesting read about marriage/couples from Alain de Botton, via my place

  45. I feel like our marriage started out with me watching for my partner to make mistakes. He did the same, but probably not to the same extent that I did. Five years later, we’ve greatly improved, but still have a ways to go. I do not want to ever experience a divorce, so I’m exercising that kindness muscle!
    The other thing I find helpful to remember is that we often judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by what they actually get done. It helps to remember that other people are probably as well-intentioned as me, but run into the same problems I do when it comes to execution!

  46. I read this last week, too! And I agree with other commenters on applying it to all relationships in your life. My parents are often really negative when I give them good news, predicting all the ways it could go wrong. They’ve always tried to prepare me for reality but I ended up, instead, with a significant other who is truly happy for me when I share good news with him and it makes me feel a million times better about my accomplishments. It reminds me to also act that way about the good news others share with me.

  47. After 3 (great!) years of marriage, I definitely could make a list of what bugs me, but I can also just as easily make a list of what I am grateful for. When I feel myself wanting to complain about those little things, I really have been trying to turn it around and remember that my husband cooks dinner EVERY NIGHT! Thanks for the reminder that I’m on right track and not to give up on the good fight!

  48. Thank you for sharing this. It was very relevant to some realizations I’ve been having lately. I have a fierce inner critic and that voice tends to pick at my partner as well. I am starting to realize that I need to work on silencing the voice for both of our sakes.

    Also, I have always believed that if you were upset about something and you vented to friends – then you would release some of your frustration and be able to move on from it easier. But I am slowly realizing that focusing on it so much and giving voice to it, actually only allows that resentment to grow and take over your perspective. This was so spot on – I need to grow my kindness, not my nit-picking and negativity.

  49. Very insightful! In my relationship, I tend to be the one to verbalize my criticisms and I constantly catch myself harping on my husband’s faults. It’s a terrible habit and it’s actually ironic because he is the best person I know and ever since I met him, he’s always made me want to be a kinder, more patient, more serene person just as he is. I agree 100 percent with you that a relationship is something you have to tend to every day. You can’t wait for things to get rough and start then. Thanks for reminding me!
    P.S. I never would have thought Dr. Phil would have anything worthwile to hear.

  50. Oh my goodness, my husband and I came across this article last week and it spurred such a lovely conversation for us. It’s now printed and in my sock drawer to serve as an occasional reminder.

  51. I think this concept is so true! When we first got married, my husband and I were given the great advice to always say “thank you” to each other, for the little things and the big things alike. Thanks for remembering to pick up milk, thanks for doing the dishes, thanks for listening to me vent about work…etc. It feels silly at first, but then becomes a habit. You both know they were going to do the dishes anyway, but we’ve found that simple recognition of your partner’s selflessness, and appreciation of things they do for your family is really powerful!

  52. ND says...

    This article really struck a chord with me, too. The Gottmans manage to put these kind of “intangible” relationship issues into words, which I so appreciate.

    When I’ve found myself focusing on the negatives in relationships, I’ve wondered why they are so amplified in my mind? So, I’ve mentally tried to divide the negatives by 3 and multiply the positives by 5. :)

    Though of course, you also have to look out for yourself in some ways, which can be hard to do when you really want a relationship to work.

  53. I am embarressed to admit that I watch “The People’s Couch” (I mean really watching people watchting TV) But I swear I watch it to see the Zeno Family. They are so kind to each other, in a matter of fact kind of way.. I think they could be a templet on how couples should treat each other.

  54. That’s excellent. At our wedding, our pastor’s homily centered on the command in Colossians to “bear with one another… and above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” I’ve thought of it often when my husband is making me angry: I can choose to bear with him in love (which is different from bearing with him grudgingly!) instead of choosing to be bitter, which is so destructive. And he does the same for me. That is probably one of the reasons that we trust one another so much: our marriage really is a “soft place to fall.”

    We all make many mistakes and it is precious to have a spouse willing to overlook, forgive, and think the best of us. Love doesn’t have to be blind (I mean, if there is a serious problem we will do something about it!!) but so many of the offenses in everyday life can be forgotten if we choose to overlook them and build each other up instead.

  55. What a great reminder! Last night my guy suggested we move our table to sit outside and watch the sunset while we eat. That little moment of romance reminded of what a wonderful man I have.

  56. So, so true. You and your partner are on the same team. I think of my marriage, my family, as a company. And I believe in our company! And I am a cheerleader, both inwardly and outwardly, of our “employees”.

  57. I LOVED this article! I’ve probably passed it on like six times. I even passed it onto my partner when it pubbed last week and it opened up a really good, natural, constructive conversation about the state of us and our relationship (and I love any chance for introspection like that).

    My favorite part was about the “bids”. It made me think about my interactions with my partner in a whole new way! So illuminating.


  58. Thank you for sharing such a great article! My husband and I just celebrated our one-year anniversary yesterday and this is quite timely for us. We try to actively practice kindness and generosity on a regular basis and I think it’s so important to “turn toward” your partner in acknowledgement and encouragement. Love this series!

  59. This is very interesting. I have been married for 5 years, and together with my husband for 11 years total. I think that for the most part we are both quite positive about each other. Of course there are things that annoy us, especially in our sleep deprived state as parents to a 9 month old boy. However, by and large we are always boosting each other up rather than tearing each other down. I will also try and be more mindful of this. I like the sentiment that you must work on your relationship in the good times as well. Hopefully, if we do that the bad times will be few and far between.

  60. Really this is the key to life seeing the positive, remembering what to be thankful for making it a point to be happy. Its not always easy but I feel like good always comes to me both personally and in all my relationships when I have a positive attitude!

  61. Being kind to each other is a piece of advice I always give to friends that are getting married. I also like to tell them to always remember what brought them together in the first place. Life can become blurred and stressful and hairy and it’s so important to remember all the good in your partner rather than pick them apart for everyday stresses.

  62. Very interesting. I need to read this. But what about the spouse who is in denial? I have a friend who constantly bolsters their emotionally abusive spouse, always making excuses for bad behavior. Perhaps they are trying to look for the positive things, but they also seem very unhappy and stretched thin.

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  64. Excellent – I need to strive to do this more often…I find myself falling into the critical role more often than not. I’m 10 years into my second marriage, and I keep weighing things to see if they are important or not…these are annoyances I’m talking about. Usually, they are NOT important, and I will just ignore them, and if I must, I’ll complain to a friend. But still…I need to be even more positive.

  65. Great post! My grandfather always said to put the rose-colored glasses on AFTER you get married. I completely agree!

  66. I read this and agree! So interesting and really makes sense. And the piece on contempt is really interesting. I find myself so uncomfortable around couples who act annoyed or even disgusted with each other. It just seems like it would build on itself– the way you admire (or look down on) your partner.

  67. I love this, and feel like it’s spot on – not just with partners, but with friends and family too – the relationship can suffer, and in many respects end if a sister or friend or parent is the giver or receiver of unhelpful criticism.

  68. I saw this article last week and loved it so much. I think it’s right on the money.