Keeping a marriage together, based on long-term research of couples


(photo (c) John and Julie Gottman)

6 min read.

The greatest gift a couple can give their baby is a loving relationship, because that relationship nourishes Baby’s development.  The stronger the connection between parents, the healthier the child can grow, both emotionally and intellectually. (p.9)

Stress and tension can build in our long-term romantic relationships, even despite our best intentions.  Perhaps you’re a few years into your relationship, and already feeling doubt, irritation, or even anger on a regular basis.

Ironically, one of the most joyous moments of our lives – having a child – can exacerbate negative feelings in a relationship (see our recent article for new Dads).  The good news is you can learn coping and relationship-building skills, and they apply whether you have kids or not.

Enter the husband and wife research team of John Gottman PhD and Julie Gottman PhD.  You may have read about them in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” (2005).  The Gottmans have conducted research for decades in their “love lab” on couples and what makes relationships and intimacy work – or fall apart (see their bios here).  In “Blink,” Gladwell reports that John Gottman can predict with 90% to 95% accuracy whether a couple will still be together in 15 years, based on analyzing 15 to 60 minutes of their interactions, respectively (p. 21-22).

In “And Baby Makes Three” (2007) the Gottmans combine their findings on healthy relationships (featured in their other books like, “Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage” (2007)) with research on new parents.  One of my friends is an expert family and marriage counselor and strongly endorsed the Gottmans.  I checked out their latest book from the library, and in a cliché-worthy way, it blew my mind.  Why hadn’t I read something like this before our first daughter arrived? I wondered.  I felt moved by hearing that the stress I had experienced was typical parents with a new child.  I also felt engaged and excited about the idea that the Gottmans had identified practices that any couple can learn and that are predictive of keeping a long-term relationship together and happy!

This is our first of fourteen biweekly articles on the book.  We will summarize each chapter and ask readers some discussion questions.  Our hope is that you buy or borrow the book, follow along, do the exercises in the book, join the discussion, and try out the practices.  We have no financial relationship with the Gottmans and the only monetary benefits we receive are Amazon referral fees when readers buy books via our links.

The Gottmans’ research for this book was informed by over 200 couples who had had babies over a thirteen year period.  The studies focused on the couples as well as their babies, and examined what was going well and not, in addition to the effectiveness of the couples’ behaviors.  The Gottmans have developed couples’ workshops built around skills they learned from “master” couples and report that these workshops have been extremely effective at maintain healthy relationships and healthy children.

The stakes are high for marriage when a child enters the picture.  A baby needs emotionally-centered and loving caregivers (good summary of research, and suggested skillful parenting behaviors, in “Bright From the Start” by Jill Stamm PhD).  We adults also want to enjoy our relationships – otherwise, presumably, we wouldn’t have gotten married in the first place.  Marriage is also an opportunity to transform ourselves.  Joseph Campbell, the American comparative mythologist, writer, and lecturer, said in conversation with Bill Moyers, “Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.” (“The Power of Myth” p.7)  In the Gottmans’ words, they call this the “shift from ME to WE.” (p. 212)

The Gottmans have identified six insights and practices that are strongly correlated with maintain a healthy relationship:

  1. “Realize that we’re all in the same soup [of stress].
  2. Delight in responding to your baby.
  3. Cool down your conflicts.
  4. Savor each other by building a strong friendship and a zesty sex life.
  5. Add warm fathering to the mix.
  6. Create an enriching legacy.” [focusing on rituals and sense of family history and context] (p. 10)

They end with some likely benefits for readers who learn and practice these behaviors:

  • “You can prevent relationship meltdown…
  • You can prevent escalating hostility…
  • You can prevent postpartum depression…
  • You can positively influence your baby’s development…” (p. 10-11)

Discussion questions:

  1. What insights and practices speak to you?  In reading the 6 insights and practices above, which resonated the most with you?  Conversely, which ones made you feel uncomfortable?  Circle or write down the top two or three that have the most emotional power for you.  Consider these your signposts to focus on in the coming weeks.  As busy parents, the best we can hope for is to try to change a few things that really matter.  You can always come back.
  2. What stresses can you identify with?  I found it very validating and relieving to know that other men (and women) feel the same stresses that I did about parenting.  Try writing down or circling a few stresses in this chapter that you can identify with, and then chat with a friend about them.  Best to pick a friend who’s also a parent, who’s your same gender, and whom you can confide in.
  3. What is your goal with this book?  Take five minutes and write down your goal.  If you come up with more than one, write them down, too, but then pick number one.  Post it in a prominent place that will remind you why you’re reading this book and joining in the discussion.  This is probably one of the most effective uses of your free time (beyond sleeping, exercise, quiet time for yourself, and spending time with your partner), so we hope it will be rewarding for you.

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