4 Techniques to Maximize Relationship Happiness

When I talk about relationships, I most often refer to the work and research of Dr. John Gottman.  Dr. Gottman has conducted over four decades of extensive research on relationships, observing the interactions of couples within a (fairly) natural setting and having real fights while measuring physiological responses over a period of time.  After observing thousands of couples over the past forty-plus years, Dr. Gottman can predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or not.  Dr. Gottman brought us the four biggest predictors of what causes relationships to fail, which he calls the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

In this post, I want to talk about Dr. Gottman’s book published in 1994, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last.  Specifically, I want to focus on relationship conflict, which I addressed in a previous post as well.

According to Dr. John Gottman (1994), it is not whether you fight that determines if your relationship will last; it is how you fight.  Dr. Gottman explains that you don’t need to learn some intricate system on how to handle arguments and conflict.  Gottman (1994) states that all you need are four simple strategies to break through the negativity in your relationship, and if you use these four strategies consistently when needed, Gottman states you’ll be 75% of the way toward maximizing happiness within your relationship.

What are these four techniques?

  1. Calm Down
  2. Communicate Non-Defensively
  3. Validate
  4. Overlearn

Calm Down
Dr. Gottman (1994) explains that when couples have conflict, sometimes one or both people may experience flooding, which is being overwhelmed or shell-shocked by the amount of negativity coming from the other person.  Your body experiences physiological responses like increased heart rate and over-arousal.  Gottman (1994) states, “It’s virtually impossible to think straight when your blood is pumping furiously and your heart is racing” (p. 176).

When flooding occurs, people tend to use protective mechanisms that can contribute more negativity to the conflict, such as defensiveness and stonewalling – two of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse (Gottman, 1994).  These are automatic, overlearned behaviors that you fall back on because you don’t have to think about it (think fight or flight).

Gottman (1994) explains that the antidote to flooding is to recognize when you feel yourself beginning to feel flooded, overwhelmed, or over-aroused, and consciously make an effort to calm yourself down.  Pay attention to your heart rate.  The higher your heart-rate goes, the more adrenaline is pumping through your blood, making it more and more impossible to really absorb what the other person is trying to say (Gottman, 1994).  Give yourself a minute or two to calm down, but be sure to let the other person know you’re doing this so that they do not mistake it for stonewalling (withdrawing altogether).  Let them know you just need a minute to calm down before you address this so that you can have a clear and rational mind.  Gottman (1994) also reminds us to replace any distress-maintaining thoughts with soothing and validating ones during our calming period, and provides examples on page 179.

Communicate Non-Defensively
Dr. Gottman (1994) explains that defensiveness in a conflict contributes to flooding, stonewalling, and adds to the cycle of negativity.  To help break this cycle, begin by listening without being defensive (Gottman, 1994).  Of course this is going to take some effort at first, as defensiveness may already be a learned and automatic response for many people.  Gottman (1994) also tells us that when you have a non-defensive attitude, it helps the other person to be less defensive as well.

Defensiveness, as mentioned earlier, is one of the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, and Dr. Gottman (1994) states that of the four, it is one of the most dangerous.  Gottman (1994) states, “Learn[ing] to listen and to speak with your spouse without feeling the need to defend yourself and without triggering defensiveness in your mate [will] do wonders for your marriage” (p. 181). 

The antidote to defensiveness, according to Dr. Gottman (1994) and his extensive research is to, “reintroduce praise and admiration into your relationship” (p. 181).  Keep a positive attitude with and toward your partner, and also keep in mind the magic ratio: “You must have at least five times as many positive as negative moments together if your marriage [or relationship] is to be stable” (Gottman, 1994, p. 29).  Dr. Gottman (1994) states that you must become the architect of your own thoughts, and this means that you choose whether you focus on the positives or the negatives in your relationship and about your partner.  When you choose to focus on the positive aspects of your partner, what made you fall in love with them in the first place, then you can begin to overlook and overcome the negative qualities about them and begin to implement more praise and admiration toward them.  Gottman (1994) states, and anyone can concur, that everyone responds to genuine praise, thanks, and compliments.  Gottman (1994) explains that you can even go through the process of changing the habits of your thoughts about each other as a team, which can double your benefits.  Focus on the positive!

(P. S. Admiration and praise is also an antidote for contempt – another horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.  Five to one ratio!!!)

Speaking of antidotes to the four horsemen, Dr. Gottman (1994) states that validation is an antidote to THREE of them – criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.  Just by letting your partner know that you understand him or her is, “one of the most powerful tools for healing your relationship” (Gottman, 1994, p. 195).  Gottman (1994) also states about validation that, “Few things make a person feel more loved and valued” (p. 195).  This involves seeing things through your partner’s eyes and actually putting yourself in his or her shoes to feel some of what he or she feels.  Let your partner know that you are considering his or her perspective and that his or her feelings are valid, even if you do not agree with it (Gottman, 1994). This will allow them to feel more comfortable and allow them to be more open to your perspective as well (Gottman, 1994).

A few ways Gottman (1994) lists that you can use to add more validation to your discussions include: taking responsibility, apologizing, complimenting, and doing the minimum (showing at least a minimal amount of validation – I understand this upsets you – will still go a long way).

As I mentioned earlier, we all have learned behaviors or sometimes even automatic responses that we don’t even think about that we just do in specific situations.  Right now, these behaviors are overlearned, which is why they are your go-to responses.  When you start using the techniques above, Gottman (1994) explains that it may, and probably will, feel unnatural at first.  You have to make a conscious effort to recognize the behaviors that keep you in the cycle of negativity and maintain a conscious effort to intervene these techniques that will break the negative cycles and start new positive and healthy ones.  You have to keep practicing these techniques until they become habits, and keep practicing the habits until they become automatic responses (Gottman, 1994).  Dr. Gottman (1994) states that practice will help these techniques become second nature, and that you can start off using the techniques in normal, everyday settings (not during a conflict), and continue practicing the techniques even when you don’t feel like it (when you’re tired, hungry, distracted…).  Then, by overlearning the healthy techniques, you’ll be able to access them when you really need them

Dr. Gottman (1994) states that these four techniques, “are all that most marriages need in order to get back on track” (p. 201).  He states that of course it probably won’t happen overnight and it will take hard work and motivation.  This book is packed full of great advice, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve and build a stronger, healthier relationship with their significant other.

Give Me Your Input
In the comment section below, tell me what some of the problems have been in your past or current relationships, and what techniques have you found to work well to improve them?


Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

About Nicole R. Locker

Nicole R. Locker is a strong, empowered woman writing about strong, empowered women (and the hunky Heroes brave enough to take them on). She's an avid lover of pit bull softies, Irish accents, and audiobooks. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her nephew and three dogs. Find her at www.nicolerlocker.com.
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