Making Marrige Work

I recently came across this summary of one of John Gottman’s books by Lynne Namka it is well worth the read.

Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr.Julie Schwartz Gottman, are the world’s foremost researchers in understanding relationships. They invite couples to come into their research laboratory and talk and argue about topics of their choice. They wire the couples up to sensory data machines and analyse the videotapes frame by frame to understand the complexities of human interaction. Gottman follows the couples long term to see who stays together. He can predict which couples will stay together after nine years with 90% accuracy after hearing just three minutes of their arguments!

Gottman found that there are basic verbal reactions that bond people together and cement relationships. He has identified the emotional command systems that people use to try to gain attention and love. He calls this the bidding process.

Positive bids are words, questions, gestures, looks, and ways of touching that reach out to the partner to say, ” I want to be closer to you.” The emotional needs that are met by bids includes

  1. to be included
  2. to have a sense of control over their life
  3. to be liked.

Parents Teach Children to Deal with Feelings and Respond to Bids

Emotional bids are learned in infancy when the child cries and the parents respond either with attention, irritability or disinterest. The parent models the learned skill of validating the child by paying positive attention to him. The child practices his own emotional bidding first with family and then making and maintaining friends. Some children are quite adept at learning and reading social cues in relationships. Failure to learn the appropriate connecting skills typically results in non-nurturing friendships and later in failure in marriages.

Ways That Families Deal With Feelings That Increase Positive Bidding

1. Emotional Coaching: accepting feelings and helping the child problem solve the issue.

  • You can get angry, but you must not yell at me. Talk to me about what upsets you.
  • I know you feel scared. What can you do to take care of these feelings?
  • When you are angry, you can draw a picture of your feelings.
  • Let’s talk about what you are feeling, and we can figure out what to do.

2. Dismissing Feelings: This includes silence or disparaging the child for having feelings. Fears are minimized and tears are ignored so the child learns to ignore his own feelings to fit into the family.

  • Shame on you for being afraid. You are a big boy.
  • If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.
  • Cheer up. Put a smile on your face and get on with it.
  • You shouldn’t feel that way.

3. Laissez-faire: These parents acknowledge the feelings, but let the situation pass without problem solving. The parents typically do not have the skills to help the child work through his upset feelings or they are too busy with other things.

  • You are feeling sad right now.
  • I can tell that you are angry with me.
  • I know you are frightened.
  • I understand how you feel.

4. Disapproving of Emotions: Parents scold and reprimand the children with shame statements and put-downs. The children learn to hide their feelings and discount them. This form of parenting develops children who feel ashamed about having feelings which are a normal part of life. These children grow up insecure and unequipped to be in partnerships.

  • Oh stop your whining and crying. Grow up!
  • Ha. Ha. Look at the little cry-baby.
  • What is the matter with you now?
  • Don’t act like a two year old. You are a big boy now.

Gottman describes the type of family philosophy regarding feelings that help children be secure and strong:

“In our two ten-year studies of more than one hundred families, the answer is clear. Families that create emotion-coaching environments fare much better than families that are dismissing, disapproving or have a laissez-faire attitude towards emotions. Couples who accept, respect and honour each other’s feelings are less likely to divorce. Their children tend to do better over the years as well. Because these emotional-coaching families create environments that help children regulate their feelings, their children can concentrate better than the kids in the other groups. They get better grades in school. They have fewer behaviour problems and they get along better with their peers. Lab results show that they have fewer stress-related hormones in their bloodstreams and that over time, they suffer from fewer minor health problems like coughs and colds.”

Ways People React to Bids for Connection

The opportunity for emotional connection is possible every time we engage in a conversation. Gottman’s concept is simple. When we talk to people there is a possibility of three outcomes from the other person:

  1. to come closer (Turning Toward)
  2. to go further way (Turning Away)
  3. to stay at a neutral place.

Happily married couples bid for connection often. Happily married couples turn towards each other and bid with interest, smiles, humour and shared meanings. They develop a reciprocal interest sharing kind of relationship.

How the partner responds to an emotional bid is important. When someone makes an emotional big for connection often and is rejected by their partner, the relationship suffers. This is called “unrequited turning.” When a partner’s attempts for connection are not met, the partner stops trying and a relationship sours. Unhappy marriages rarely bid at all, creating a type of “roommate marriage.” People hardly rebid at all in marriages headed for divorce.

Turning Away Responses to Bids for Attention

Common Turning Away obstacles to connection in relationship include:

  1. Passive, noncommittal responses
  2. Preoccupied, ignoring responses
  3. Disregarding responses
  4. Interrupting and changing the subject responses

Turning Against Responses to Bids for Attention

The Turning Against responses was negative and angry. These types of responses included:

1. Belligerent responses such as being provocative, or wanting to pick a fight.

2. Contradicting and disparaging responses, such as wanting to debate and disagree, although less hostile than belligerence responses.

3. Domineering responses included attempts to control, get the other person to back off or be submissive.

4. Critical responses such as blaming and judgments made on the other person. Sentences that start out with blaming statements like “You always…” are critical responses.

5. Defensive responses include the statements of saying, “It’s not my fault.” in irritation and relinquishing responsibility.

Responding with Turning Away or attack are subtle ways of saying ” I don’t care to be bothered by you.” Feelings of loss and disappointment bring trouble to a relationship. The Turning Away From and the Turning Against responses created hurt, disappointment, anxiety, and discouragement, which then affected the quality of the marriage.

Differences Between Men and Women

Gottman’s research says that men hold the key to whether the relationship will succeed or not. When the husband is mindful of his responses to his wife and shows interest and caring, there is more of a chance for a happy marriage. In happy marriages, husbands turned towards their wives more than men from unhappy marriages. Women usually turned towards the husband’s bids whether the marriage was happy are not.

When both turned against each other, husbands typically became hostile or suppressed their emotions. When spouses typically turned away from each other’s positive bids for attention, both respond with more hostility during arguments. Disconnected couples hardly talked to each other and failed to connect.

His research showed that in general, men are more critical and irritable than women when they are stressed in talking about a difficult subject. Men were more likely to ” fight or flight,” while women were more likely to “tend and befriend.” The wives ability to stay calm and interested during a confrontation helped keep the husband stable.

Speak Sweetly When You Start a Sticky Subject

Soft start-ups when beginning a serious discussion are important in creating a climate for problem solution. Soft start-ups include statements like, “I was worried when you didn’t call. I really appreciate it when I know your change of schedule.” or “Honey, I need a new dress. Could we sit down and discuss our budget?” Soft start-ups being with something positive, express gratitude and start with the word “I” instead of “You.” Complaints are presented in a hopeful, helpful way so that problems can be resolved, not debated.

Harsh start-ups begin with a demand or accusation set the tone for anger in the fight. Think of the guests on the Jerry Springer show who start out with ugly, angry words and then escalate. ! Harsh set ups start the word “You” which is followed by a complaint. They jump right into complaining without setting the climate for a resolution of the problem. They focus on what is wrong and make judgmental comments about the person’s character. Hurtful criticism includes blaming, demands and set the tone of being willing to fight. Anytime you hear yourself saying “You never…” or “You always…” you are using a harsh start up.

Stockpiling of complaints is bringing up several unresolved disputes at once. Past hurts and unresolved problems are heaped on the current issue. Adding on many unresolved issues from the past will get discussion off track and nothing will get resolved.

The Crabby Habit of Mind

Gottman noted that some people consistently look for the wrong doings of their partners and then find it. Looking for the worst and then commenting on it can be a bad habit. Critical, judgmental people are usually met with Turning Away or Turning Against responses.

You get what you put out. It is important for couples to develop a positive emotional bank account filled with positive bidding and returned interest. Some people practice seeing the good in things and build up a habit of being positive. Optimistic people invest more in relationships.

The Flooding of Stress Related Hormones can Send Fights Spinning Out of Control

The “fight or flight” response is a reaction to stress left over from our cave-man days. Flooding happens in people who become angry quickly. Hormones flood in to prepare the person to take care of himself in threatening situations. Adrenalin courses through the bloodstream to prepare for action. Physical sign of flooding are feeling energized, hot, shallow breathing, pounding heart and muscle tension.

Unfortunately, common sense is thrown out the window when you become flooded. You say things you do not mean. Ugly words are tossed out. You shut off listening to your partner and sometimes go for the jugular vein. The over-excited behaviours that accompany flooding are you at your worst. Loud voices and rude behaviour during an argument create even more conflict in the relationship, and the problem does not get worked out.

You are always responsible for your anger. Time outs to calm yourself and bring you back to your right mind are the recommendations given to people who flood. Time outs can be established in advance with the purpose of helping the relationship. They can be stated as “For the good of the relationship, I need to go calm myself down. I’ll cool off then we can talk further.” Abrupt leavings without warning are not helpful.

You can learn to ask to be excused to get back to your right mind. You need to agree to return to the discussion and not just sweep the unresolved issue under the rug. People have different amounts of time that they need to calm down before they can return and discuss the issue in a quieter manner.

Avoiding the Confrontation You Need to Hear

Some families are conflict avoidant. This creates feelings of frustration, problems never being solved and building up of resentment in one partner, which sometimes results in big blow-ups. Sometimes it is not the right time to talk about a problem. Sometimes one partner refuses to discuss the problem. Little problems do need to be addressed before they grow into big ones. Gottman noticed three ways of dealing with conflict when one partner did not want to talk”

1. Attack the partner and defend the self (You pay for this by having a partner who will shut down eventually.)

2. Avoid, deny or minimize when there is a problem (You pay for this by having a partner who remains angry. Anger builds up, as there is no escape valve for it to release.)

3. Disclose feelings and connect with the partner. (If the time for talking out the problem is not appropriate, make a date to talk at a better time.)

Why are people conflict avoidant? Fights cause adrenalin to course through the body. Arguments make them upset and they do not like to feel that way. The high emotional arousal (nervous stomach, shortness of breath, fear reaction, etc.) that conflict-avoidant people have can be addressed through the Energy Psychology techniques. You can learn to stay to quell these physiological reactions that accompany feeling threatened.

Practice Emotional Bidding and Responses to Create Happy Lives

So the research says that how you respond to your partner’s bids for attention depends on whether you have a happy, loving relationship or not. Positive engagement by couples increases affection and interest while having an argument.

The moral of Gottman’s research? Kindness works. Respect is crucial. Show interest in what your partner says and you will build up big dividends in your relationship. Look for the good in your partner and make it known. Say what you like out loud and you will get more of it. Men, pay attention to the emotional needs of your wife. Return your partner’s bids with positive interest and you will have more happiness in your life.


Gottman, John and DeClaire, Joan. The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide for Building Better Communications for Family, Friends and Lovers.  

Gottman, John and Schwartz-Gottman, Julie. Why Marriages Succeed and Fail

Book summarized by Lynne Namka, Ed. D