By Camille Chatterjee, published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on March 14, 2012
If anyone understands the chemistry of a good marriage, it's John Gottman, Ph.D. For over three decades, Gottman has interviewed almost 700 couples, recording their interactions and monitoring their heart rate and stress levels in his "Love Lab" -- an apartment outfitted with video cameras and sensors. The co-director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute (with wife and fellow psychologist Julie, also a Ph.D.), Gottman has compiled his well-studied strategies for beating breakups in a new book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999).
"At the heart of my program," writes Gottman, a University of Washington psychology professor, "is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for each other's company," plus an intimate knowledge of each other's quirks, likes and dislikes. This explains his surprising finding that frequent fighting is not a sign of a bad marriage (unless, of course, it becomes physical abuse). Because while all couples argue, it is the spouses who are friends first who have the advantage.
Amicable partners are less combative during shouting matches than spouses who don't understand each other. And couples who don't respect or have little connection with one another engage in "negative sentiment override" -- they interpret statements more pessimistically and take comments more personally than other pairs, leading to dissatisfaction.
Spouses who are friends also make more "repair attempts" during a spat; they say or do things -- like make a silly face or bring up a private joke -- that keeps anger from escalating out of control. The key point, Gottman reports, is that partners who know each other better know best what will relieve tension in sticky situations -- so the fighting stops and the marriage goes on (perhaps) happily ever after.