So much of what I have learned about relationships in my early thirties, I wish I knew in my twenties. Between reading and therapy, I now know more about things like boundaries, codependency, and healthy sexuality. And this knowledge has expanded my self-awareness and healing as a woman. Currently single, I regularly take the time to read and educate myself about the tools that make a good relationship great. When I am in a serious relationship, I want to put into practice everything I have learned.
But when I reflect on which book has taught me the most about healthy relationships, I find myself returning to the work of Dr. John Gottman. Most especially his bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
What makes this book stand out?
Dr. John Gottman is known around the country as one of the leading experts on relationships and marriage. In fact, he is able to predict divorce (with a 91 percent accuracy!) from spending years researching couples’ interactions in “Love Labs”—spaces where couples were observed to see the workings of their relationship and to help develop their emotional intelligence.
Over the years of research and clinical work with couples, Dr. Gottman has developed a strong model that helps couples today understand what actually makes marriage work. At the same time, he has developed particular criteria that often indicate a marriage or relationship that is doomed from the start. You may have heard of some of these signs: a harsh startup to an argument, the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), emotional flooding, contemptuous body language, failed repair attempts, and bad memories. Dr. Gottman has found that these traits are predictors of divorce or an unhealthy relationship should they go unchanged.
“No two marriages are the same, but the more closely I looked at happy marriages the clearer it became that they were alike in seven telltale ways,” Gottman writes. “Happily married couples may not be aware that they follow these seven principles, but they all do. In mastering these seven principles, you can ensure that your own marriage will thrive.”
I’m not in a serious relationship currently, so marriage may not be imminent for me yet, but I’ve been surprised to find how Gottman’s principles have influenced my outlook as I navigate these single years. There are two lessons in particular that I have taken away from this book.
Put aside your fears and stay true to your standards
First, Gottman’s research has helped me to see that a good marriage is not a matter of luck nor is it written in the stars. There are specific and recognizable habits that characterize bad relationships and specific and recognizable habits that characterize good relationships. This has taught me to never lower my standards or principles just because I want to be in a relationship. Sometimes women are pressured into believing that their standards are too high to find a great man. Maybe you have been told you are too this or that, or that your standards will scare guys away.
Yet, everyone has a right to have standards and expectations in a relationship. What are the five things that are important to you in a significant relationship? What are the five things you cannot tolerate in a relationship? Knowing deep down what I am looking for (and avoiding!) in a relationship helps me see more clearly which guys are worth getting to know more and which are not. Having this knowledge in advance helps me not feel guilty or apologize for having personal standards in dating and relationships. If you want to grow on a solid foundation of honesty, it’s worth not settling just because you want to be in a relationship.
A real match
Second, Gottman’s book has shown me that the habits that characterize bad relationships can be overcome and the habits that characterize good relationships can be learned. This has led me to another important realization: I want to be in a relationship with a man who is as whole and healed as I am.
Part of why I appreciate Gottman’s love advice is because I have been in relationships where these principles haven’t been prioritized. I now see how that led to dead ends, and I have since done much healing and emotional work to make better choices in regards to men and dating. I have worked very hard at really getting to know myself and have grown in self-awareness, and I am seeking someone who can appreciate that.
I am not asking for flawless perfection in a serious relationship with a man, but I am asking that he have done his own soul work to help him become his best self. I want to be healthy and secure while I’m single so that I can carry that into my future relationships and marriage. And in addition to preparing myself, I’ve learned to be aware of men who also hold true to that same core value.
There are lots of great (and less than great!) books on dating and relationships. But great relationships take time and intention and don’t just happen overnight. While my journey to my husband may be ongoing still, I have found Gottman’s book to be a great resource for me in helping me make the most of this time until then. By standing true to my principles and growing in understanding of what makes a good relationship not just great, but exceptional, I’m finding deep meaning in my single years in the meantime.