John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, and author of several books on marriage, recommends some of the following activities, as a way of improving a marriage (1):
Displays of affection
Appreciation of one’s partner
In addition, Gottman proposes that married couples should always strive to have good communication (2). This is important, because the way in which couples communicate, and handle conflicts, predicts marital breakdown. Gottman further argues that, within three minutes of observing married couples discuss a problem, he is able to predict, with over 80% accuracy whether the marriage will last. He identifies four major communication and conflict solving problems that predict marital breakdown. He refers to these as the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’. They include contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness.
1. Criticism: This involves attacking a partner’s personality, rather than addressing the problem at hand (3). For instance, calling your partner ‘lazy’ or ‘careless’, because they failed to return a rented DVD is form of personal attack on their character. A more appropriate form of constructive criticism would simply be, to address the specific task which your partner has failed to complete.
2. Contempt: This is a more harsh form of criticism which may involve gestures such as rolling your eyes in disapproval. Sometimes a partner may also use sarcasm or irony to express their bitterness. Such behaviors can be very patronizing to one’s partner, because they reveal a lack of respect. Research has shown that contempt has the most damaging negative effects in a marriage because, “It conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than reconciliation” (4).
3. Defensiveness: A partner that is being defensive during a conflict may engage in behaviours such as making excuses, overlooking the consequences of certain behaviours or simply failing to acknowledge that they are at fault.
4. Stonewalling: The fourth, and last, communication problem is a form of withdraw or disengagement from a conflict. Research suggests that this form of deliberate avoidance is more common among husbands than wives (5). This may be considered a form of neglect for the marriage and its success.
Gottman proposes that the constant presence, of the ‘four horsemen’ alone, predict marital breakdown by 82%. However, unsuccessful attempts to repair these communication problems increase the prediction for marital breakdown to over 90% (6).
(1) Seligman, E. M. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. A Division of Simon & Schuster.
(2) Gottman, J. M. (1993). A Theory of Marital Dissolution and Stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 57-75.
(3) Sharma, p. (2007). Marriage and Health. Retrieved 2009-06-17, from
(4) Sharma, p. (2007). Marriage and Health. Retrieved 2009-06-17, from
(5) Sharma, p. (2007). Marriage and Health. Retrieved 2009-06-17, from
(6) Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). How I predict divorce, in ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work’. Retrieved 2009-06-18, from