Marriage & Life Partners

Five Marriage Myths Dispelled

Marriage guru John Gottman, who has been studying how couples interact for 40 years at the Gottman Institute, published an op-ed in The Washington Post this week detailing five myths about marriage. Much of what he and his colleagues have discovered mirrors my clinical experience, which, though not strictly scientific, has shown validity and consistency through the years. But there is no one model for a successful marriage and couples find all kinds of ways of living happily together. In fact, some of Gottman’s findings are surprising because they run counter to popular wisdom. His list includes:

MYTH NO. 1 — Common interests keep you together.

As a billion dollar industry, internet dating is based on this idea. Many sites ask you questions (sometimes hundreds of them) and computer algorithms help select potential mates based on this information. Gottman writes:

“In a Pew survey, 64 percent of respondents said ‘having shared interests’ is ‘very important’ to their marriages — beating out having a satisfying sexual relationship and agreeing on politics. But the important thing is not what you do together; it’s how you interact while doing it. Any activity can drive a wedge between two partners if they’re negative toward each other.”

It’s not what you do, but how you do it. It’s no good playing golf with your husband if he picks apart your game. Gottman and his colleagues have found that criticism, especially contemptuous remarks and/or ad hominem insults, is “one of the four destructive behaviors that indicate a couple will eventually divorce.” His model of a ratio of positive and negative “bids” (attempts to seek attention from a partner), is a more powerful predictor of whether or not a marriage will survive. His findings suggests that ideally the ratio of positive to negative interactions should be 20-to-1. In other words, negative interactions are tolerable, but only if there are 20 times as many positive ones. An example of the latter can be something as small as showing interest when your partner brings up something interesting he is reading in the newspaper. Failing to show interest is an example of a negative bid.


MYTH NO. 2 — Never go to bed angry.

Researchers have found that pushing people to resolve their problems right away can backfire. For one thing, people are usually tired at night and not their most thoughtful or patient selves. More important, Gottman says, “Everyone has their own methods of dealing with disagreements, and research indicates that about two-thirds of recurring issues in marriage are never resolved because of personality differences.”

This reflects what I have found in my clinical work. It is not crucial to solve every problem or work through them all. Some things might never be resolved. For example, conflicts about in-laws are notoriously intractable, partly because they involve others, not just the couple. Furthermore, our feelings about our parents run very deep and are complex. A husband might never like spending time with his mother-in-law, and each visit may require negotiations.

What I tell couples is the important thing is to have some method of talking about and confronting problems—not a foolproof one, but some strategies for dealing with some of them. Many issues take a long time to resolve or improve, and if a spouse feels there is no forum for discussion, they can feel trapped and hopeless.But it’s OK  to wait until the time is right. People often cool off after a night’s rest and a much more productive conversation can take place in the morning, or even later. Strike when the iron is cold and you may have more success during a disagreement.


MYTH NO. 3 — Couples therapy is for fixing a broken marriage.

One of the biggest problems marriage counselors face is that people often don’t seek help until it is too late. There is a common misconception that asking for help is a sign of weakness, a “red flag,” rather than a sign of commitment to making things work better. Many people assume that the early years of a relationship should all be fun and easy, and if they are not, there is something fundamentally wrong.

Actually, couples that fight a lot during the first years of marriage often have a better chance of staying together than those who sweep things “under the rug.” And there are always “things.” Gottman’s research supports this. He writes that the idea that seeking help early is a bad thing:

“. . .often keeps spouses from seeking the sort of regular maintenance that would benefit almost any relationship. The average couple waits six years after serious issues arise before getting help with their marital problems, and by then it’s often too late: Half of all divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage. In a therapist’s office, spouses can learn conflict-management skills. . .and ways to connect and understand each other.”

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