walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Reread: _The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work_, John M Gottman and Nan Silver

I am not certain when I first read this, altho it was probably in 2000. The first order on Amazon I have for this book is from 25 April 2000, along with Sugrue's book about Detroit and Joan Kron's book _Lift_. Oddly, _Lift_ was the first book by Kron that I didn't love, and I tried rereading Sugrue's book about a year or so ago and I wasn't nearly as impressed by it as I was when I first read it. The same order included _Believing Cassandra_ (which I don't really remember at all) and some UFC videotapes. Ah, a different world.

Anyway. I bought my sister a copy by the end of 2001, so I definitely had read it by then. It's less clear to me whether the 2000 purchase was my first purchase, or whether that, too, was bought for someone else.

In 2005, I was excited about Gottman's _Baby Makes Three_ project, and we signed up for and were tremendously underwhelmed by a Gottman Institute presentation for new parents. Despite this having cooled my ardor for all things Gottman, I've continued to recommend the book to other people. I thought maybe I should reread it before I did it again.

The things I really loved about Gottman I continue to love: that he actually _watched_ and logged couples in action, and generally took a pragmatic "what works" approach to things, rather than having people fill out questionnaires. Way too many people attempt to assess "happiness" and "satisfaction" by having people use No. 2 pencils to fill in scantron forms; Gottman openly says that women in abusive relationships tend to score higher on these measures of satisfaction and happiness than almost any other. Some of Gottman's advice continues to ring very true to me: the hazards associated with "harsh startup", displays of contempt, stonewalling, character attacks. The benefits of keeping up-to-date on each other's daily lives seem more salient to me now than ever before. Recognizing when a disagreement or problem needs to be managed vs. solved is still a useful tool.

And that's more or less where it ends.

There are so many things missing from this book. Why do people do things that are so tremendously damaging to their most committed adult relationship -- and why is it so hard to stop? To me, that question _must_ be asked, and it must lead to a discussion of how these techniques are initially effective in motivating a reluctant partner to do (or not do) something important to us, or, like every other bad habit that is suppressed or substituted around, it will return when we need that effect again. Gottman provides many useful alternatives for managing and resolving conflict, which is great, but his discussion of negotiation is really awful. I had no idea how bad it was at the time, because it was a lot like the other five or so negotiation books I'd read, but after having read _P.E.T._, I have such a wildly different perspective on negotiation that the standard approach just seems risible now.

Worse, Gottman is so focused on predicting divorce and then helping people reduce their risk of it, he doesn't have _anything_ to help people decide if they _should_ get divorced. All problems go into the hopper of solvable or perpetual, and perpetual problems are treated as things that need to be managed, not as indicators that divorce is a better choice. This just strikes me as nuts, and if BATNA had figured at all in the discussion, I think that would have been obvious. A woman who wants to have biological children with her husband who learns, at age 30 or whatever, that her husband is committed to _not_ having biological children or being married to someone who has biological children should not be focusing on managing this source of conflict. She should be filing papers, and looking for a replacement husband. She has a window, and she shouldn't waste it.

Gottman is quite direct, which is a good thing, except to the degree that it prevents him and his co-author from exploring the uses of humor in a relationship. There's a passing mention of sarcasm as part of the second horseman, contempt, and there are numerous mentions of the use of goofy humor (silly smiles, sticking one's tongue out) as part of repair attempts and as a way to "turn towards". And that's great. But humor can be a huge source of sort of "surprise conflict", through misunderstanding and incompatibility, and it can also (as he recognizes) be an enormous strength in an otherwise deeply troubled relationship. Yet he never turns any kind of lens on humor within the context of a relationship, beyond this potential to be used in a bid.


Perhaps he has good reasons for leaving BATNA and the potentially toxic uses of humor out of discussions of relationships. Maybe he has good reasons for leaving the idea of a "dealbreaker" out of marriage counseling. But whatever those reasons might be, and whatever sense that made to me back when I was first reading and loving this book back in the early 2000s (and, I might add, still mired in a series of desperately unsatisfactory relationships), I'm a little shocked and appalled now. This feels like as serious and problematic a gap as having no tools for getting a kid experiencing high levels of negative emotion to high levels of positive emotion before moving to calm, but rather having to move from the tantrum to calm before proceeding.

Journeyman error, basically, and I'm expecting a higher level of performance. I'm going to look around to see if Gottman explores humor in relationships somewhere else and I just missed it. In the meantime, if your relationships don't work for you, this is _still_ an excellent place to start.
Tags: book review

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