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“It’s not lack of love, but lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”—Nietzsche

In western cultures, about 90% of people get married by age 50.

And according to the American Psychological Association (2021), nearly 50% of first marriages end in divorce. The rates are higher for subsequent marriages.

One thing is clear—making marriage work is hard work.

Seasons of financial strain, illness, or problems with children can make it even harder.

Research also shows that marriage affects your health, your happiness, the emotional well-being of your children, your financial success, even how long you live.

All of these things play a role in your overall leadership impact.

Sometimes, life gets busy and problems in marriage fester because they go unrecognized and aren’t addressed early.

But many driven leaders feel they get more respect and have more control in the workplace—making work an enticing escape from the messiness of home.

In either case, it’s worth the investment in time and energy to develop the habit of checking the “dashboard” of your marriage on a regular basis and performing any necessary repairs in order to keep your relationship healthy and strong.

To be sure, not all marriages can or should be kept at all costs, but many of them can be saved and improved with the requisite investment of time and resources.

The BIG Idea—For anyone interested in lasting personal leadership, an ongoing strategy for marriage must be part of your plan.

Reasons to invest in marriage

  • Health & Life Expectancy: Researchers Lois Verbrugge and James House at University of Michigan found that an unhappy marriage can increase your chance of getting sick by 35% and even shorten your life by four to eight years. They believe that the chronic diffuse physiological arousal caused by marital tension increases blood pressure and heart disease, lowers the immune response, and increases unhealthy coping behaviors. Anyone who has had a relationship argument can probably accept this explanation.
  • Effects on children: In a study done by renowned psychologist John Gottman, preschool children who came from homes with high levels of marital hostility showed elevated stress hormones when compared to other children. These same children, when they reached age fifteen, had higher rates of truancy, depression, peer rejection, behavioral problems, and low academic achievement.
  • Finances: Tom Stanley Ph.D conducted the largest study ever done on millionaires. He details his research in his outstanding book, The Millionaire Next Door. Couples with stable marriages are much more likely to achieve long-term financial success. A few years ago, I knew someone with a severe credit card problem. His wife was better at managing money, but every month he would spend thousands on credit cards. You can see how it would be very difficult to invest in retirement, pay the house off, or work as a team, when one partner is regularly accumulating excessive debt. And of course, divorce itself is usually very costly.

Predicting divorce with 91% accuracy

Psychologist John Gottman is the world’s foremost expert on marriage.

He spent more than 42 years studying marriage in his famous Love Lab in Seattle.

His exhaustive research included watching thousands of hours of videotapes of couples arguing, conducting detailed interviews, and even measuring heart rate, blood velocity, sweat, respiration and endocrine levels during marital conflict. He tracked some of these couples over many years doing repeat interviews.

Across seven different studies, Gottman was eventually able to predict whether a couple would divorce with 91% accuracy, after watching only a 15-minute interaction.

Gottman says—“I don’t have some superhuman perception…it rests solely on the science, and the decades of data my colleagues and I have accumulated.”

Anyone who is married or wants to be, will benefit from reading his bestselling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Even couples who read his book together and completed the exercises, achieved significant improvements in their relationship happiness.

4 signs that your marriage could be in trouble

I don’t know about you, but the pandemic has certainly made things more difficult for most couples, so Gottman’s research is especially relevant right now.

Gottman states there are 4 big reasons that prevent successful resolution of marital conflict. He calls them the “4 Horseman of the Marriage Apocalypse”—Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

  • Criticism—No one wants to be around someone who is constantly criticizing them. It’s especially bad when one partner attacks the other person’s character, or uses words like you always or you never.
  • Contempt is an extreme form of criticism and the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt is mocking sarcasm and serious lack of respect or empathy.
  • Defensiveness means that you react quickly to protect yourself, and may shift blame or avoid responsibility for your actions. This leads to what Gottman called harsh start-ups, or arguments that escalate quickly.
  • Stonewalling is the final phase and is usually a reaction to criticism or contempt. When one partner feels emotionally overwhelmed, it’s not uncommon for them to check out of the relationship and refuse to talk. 85% of men stonewall as a natural reaction to conflict and must be careful this doesn’t become the default response.

If you recognize any of these things in your current marriage, the earlier you can intervene and turn things around, the better.

It is important to recognize that the absence of conflict in marriage is not the goal. In fact, it is often a sign of false harmony, an indicator that important feelings are not being addressed.

What can you do to strengthen your marriage?

The following is adapted from Gottman’s research:

  1. Never stop getting to know each other. Gottman calls this building your love maps. We cannot love someone we don’t know. The most stable couples have a strong friendship as their foundation. The idea is to continue being curious about your spouse—knowing their favorite things, their greatest hopes or deepest fears, and current stressors. Gottman has a great quiz called How well do you know your spouse? Link at bottom.
  2. Invest heavily in the positive experiences and focus on the good stuff. This is critically important. Gottman calls this building fondness and admiration. Play together, schedule regular dates. Just like a gratitude practice, keep focusing on the good things about your partner. This helps to build a reservoir of positive emotions and memories that can buffer against the hard seasons. All relationships wither without investments, so make it your goal to invest heavily in positive interactions. In fact, Gottman and his co-author Nan Silver recommend that you should aim for at least five positive experiences for every negative one (smiling, touching, laughing, complimenting).
  3. Habitually turn toward each other. This involves two things—First, make a regular practice of spending even 15-minutes together at the end of your day.  Time is not the only ingredient for a successful relationship, but it is essential. Gottman recommends you build up emotional currency by not taking your small daily interactions for granted. Second, when conflict comes up, keep turning toward each other instead of running away.
  4. Let your partner influence you. Gottman found that the happiest and most stable couples were those that worked as a team. No one wants to be in a “my way or the highway” relationship. The strongest couples listen to each other’s opinions for decision making, and seek common ground. They also have different roles and know what each partner does well.
  5. Develop a habit and process for addressing conflict. Gottman calls this solving your solvable problems. Contrary to popular belief, many marital problems cannot be solved and many successful couples are radically accepting of what they cannot change about their partner. The book helps guide you through whether your conflict is solvable or not. But make continued attempts to repair the problem and de-escalate the conversation. Practice soothing yourself and calming yourself down. Be tolerant of each other’s flaws.
  6. Clearly identify the big problems. Some issues in marriage are really big ongoing sources of conflict. Make sure you identify those and watch for what Gottman calls gridlock. These can be a source of perpetual irritation. One great strategy is to get to know your own dreams, and your spouses dreams so that you can determine where they may be incompatible. If one person feels they must sacrifice their identify for the relationship, resentment can set in. The goal is to support each other’s aspirations without sacrificing your own completely. Be creative and learn to discuss these things without hurting each other. You may need to discuss them continuously.
  7. Develop a shared purpose. According to Gottman, when couples agree on the big purposes for life and marriage, conflict is much less likely to lead to gridlock. It can help to have a family mission statement and discuss the big-picture about what brings meaning and purpose to life. He also says that every family has its own mini-culture, which answers the unique question—What does it mean to be part of this family?

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources

  1. John Gottman’s quiz on how well you know your partner—
  2. American Psychological Association on Divorce
  3. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work—John Gottman & Nan Silver
  4. Love & Respect by Dr Emmerson Eggeriches Ph.D (Faith-based)
  5. Boundaries in Marriage by Cloud and Townsend Ph.D’s (Faith-based)
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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