Why Marriages succeed or fail -By John Gottman (A book review)

This was such a great book, it’s going to become my ‘go to’ gift for friends getting married. There is lots of wisdom, blended with the latest in relationship research in a way that’s practical and engaging. Below are simply the key ideas that I took from the book. If you like it, make sure you go and grab the book ‘Why marriages succeed or fail’ by John Gottman.

  • How we view our relationships history, weather it’s positive or negative, predicts divorce with 100% accuracy and predicts which couples stay together with 94% accuracy. (Research is based on interviews from 40 couples regarding their relationship history 3 years prior to the interview.)
  • This finding is due to the fact that during difficult times, couples ‘recast’ their shared history, tainting the relationships past with the negativity experienced in the present.
  • Critical factors in this finding are whether their relationship history was described, as being formed from a period of perceived control or chaos, of feeling disappointed with hard times or relishing the struggles, and the sense of togetherness or separateness and affection the couple displays.
  • Relationships are paramount to females. At the age of 7 when there is a mishap in a game, girls will stop the game and debrief on what happened and ensure everyone is ok. Boys, on the other hand, will take the incident out of the game so the game can continue, the game being the most important thing at hand.
  • In a marriage, complaining is ok and does minimal harm, criticism on the other hand can do irreparable damage.
  • Marital strengths and weaknesses simply get amplified by external stresses like children, parents, finances and work.
  • To make a relationship thrive you need a ratio of 5:1, that’s 5 positive emotions to every 1 negative. Couples with a ratio around the 1:1 level tend to head towards separation.








  • Here are 9 simple ways to improve the ratio in your marriage and each underpins the two essential ingredients, love and respect.
  1. Show genuine interest – ask relevant questions and be curious about your partners life
  2. Be affectionate – Compliments, cuddles, public praise and touch go a long way in bolstering the positivity ratio required for a good relationship
  3. Show you care – Small acts of kindness demonstrate thoughtfulness and care
  4. Be appreciative – Reminisce about the past, compliment and acknowledge in the present and show optimism for your future together
  5. Show your concern – Reflect that you hear and understand them and be supportive
  6. Be empathetic – Demonstrate that you understand their issues or concerns genuinely
  7. Be accepting – You’re not going to agree every time, but you can always accept your partners perspective and possibly their quirkier traits too
  8. Joke around – create playful moments where laughter and fun become natural
  9. Share your joy – be open with your happiness, optimism and successes
  • Politeness is one of the first things to go in a troubled marriage and a strong indicator that things are heading South. Negativity is not the enemy of a strong marriage, rather it’s the way the negativity is dealt with that defines a marriages success or failure.
  • ‘Flooding’ occurs when the brain experiences so much negativity that it goes into overwhelm, hits the stress response and floods the brain with cortisol and adrenaline and leads it to shut down. Men typically become flooded more easily than women and this happens when the heart rate rises above 100 beats per minute.
  • Happily married couples view good things in their relationship as stable and pervasive and view the negatives as fleeting and situational. Similar to the trait of optimism.
  • Chronic flooding can lead to distance and isolation, triggering a feeling that talking about the issues seems to spiral downwards quickly and is useless. This often leads towards couples living their own lives in parallel and fosters loneliness and resentment.

Three types of relationships

  1. Validating – These couples respect each other and are comfortable showing it. They listen calmly and are good at setting the other at ease and showing they can empathise. If either partner has a challenge or issue, the other is happy to hear it and support them where they can.
  2. Volatile – These couples are comfortable with conflict. They are happy to yell and defend their perspective immediately. They are also able to put an argument in the past and move on. If there’s an issue, they need to air it, and both partners will be defensive and aggressive in the way they communicate. These relationships often have as much passion as they do conflict, which is why they can also be successful marriages.
  3. Avoidant – These couples would rather sweep the issues under the carpet and are comfortable agreeing to disagree. They realise that little gets resolved by bringing up most issues and seem to agree that their relationship is worth more than any individual problem. When issues do get aired they often get made light of with both partners almost making humour of the situation. Many things don’t get discussed in these relationships as conflict is generally avoided.

The four horsemen that spell trouble for your marriage

  1. Criticism – Attacking someone’s personality or character rather than their behaviour. For example; “You never help around the house, you’re so lazy,” compared to a complaint which may be “It upsets me when the kitchen is left untidy, I thought I asked to you clean up?”
  2. Contempt – Underpinned by a deliberate attempt to hurt or harm your partner. Tell tale signs are insults, hostile humour, name calling, mockery and disrespectful body language. For example “You disgust me, you’re such a slob.”
  3. Defensiveness – When someone feels attacked, the most common response is to defend their position wholeheartedly. This may involve denying responsibility, making excuses, mindreading (making assumptions about the other persons intentions), cross complaining (pointing out the others faults) rubber manning (going from defense to attack), yes-butting (agreeing initially then redirecting it to a new negative place and whining. For example “For God’s sake, I’ve been working all day, what have you been doing?”
  4. Stone walling – interacting with minimal effort. Perhaps nodding in the right places but being emotionally absent for the conversation. This may be done to avoid conflict but conveys disapproval, disrespect and even smugness. For example, shrugging and walking to another room when asked a question about helping.

The four strategies for marriage success

  1. Calm down – become self-aware and notice when arguments are escalating. Stop your, and your partners brains from flooding before it occurs
  2. Speak non-defensively – Learn to listen without the need to defend your position. Be open with your partners feelings and focus more on what’s right, than what’s wrong. Be mindful not to show contempt or criticism and learn to complain effectively.
  3. Validation – Show praise and acknowledgement freely. Take responsibility where appropriate, apologise freely and openly.
  4. Overlearn – Accept that building a strong foundation to your relationship will take time and these skills and strategies are all trial and error. Keep working towards improving the relationship and look for what works and what triggers negative responses.


Why marriages succeed or fail was a great read with lots of practical ideas for each relationship style and solid examples of how things go right and wrong.