What fuels a strong, resilient, enjoyable marriage? Most people would immediately answer with suggestions like better communication and the ability to resolve conflicts. As important as those skills are, it is actually much simpler than that. According to marriage and relationship expert John Gottman, it boils down to one thing: friendship!
Why is friendship so important?
According to Gottman in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, the most important dynamic needed in a strong marriage is what he calls Positive Sentiment Override (PSO), which is just another way of talking about friendship.
What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones.1
The concept of PSO was first proposed by University of Oregon psychologist Robert Weiss. It simply means that a couple’s positive thoughts about each other are so strong that they override any negative thoughts they have. When conflict emerges, the couple is able to weather the challenge because they have already built relationship resilience. It doesn’t mean that a couple won’t ever struggle, but it will take a much bigger conflict to rock the relationship.
The entire work of John Gottman has been less about predicting divorce as it has been about helping couples build PSO. Because he has observed so many couples in his forty-plus years of research, he provides useful relational skills that can deeply enhance a marriage or any relationship.
What does friendship look like?
Here are the first three of seven ways that Gottman provides for couples to connect and build their friendship with one another:2
Enhance love maps
What does this mean? It means that a husband or wife never stops getting to know one another. So often, through the mundane monotony of life and the hectic seasons of marriage, career, and family, it is easy for people to start ignoring their spouse. Instead, encourage a couple to remain inquisitive about each other, continually asking what their spouse likes, dislikes, fears, and finds comfort in.
They keep remembering the major events in each other’s history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. When she orders him a salad, she knows what kind of dressing he likes. If she works late, he’ll think to record her favorite TV show. He could tell you how she’s feeling about her boss and exactly how to get to her office from the elevator. He knows that religion is important to her but that deep down she has doubts. She knows that he fears being too much like his father and considers himself a “free spirit.” They know each other’s life goals, worries, and hopes.
Without such a love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them? No wonder the biblical term for sexual love is to “know.”3
Nurture fondness and admiration
Another practical way you can encourage couples to build their friendship or increase PSO is through nurturing fondness and admiration for each other. The tendency in any marriage is to slowly let one’s guard down. Couples stop thinking about and expressing the things they appreciate about one another. After all, it is much more natural and easy to start finding fault and pointing out the things one doesn’t like about someone else.
At first, this may all seem obvious to the point of being ridiculous: People who are happily married like each other. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be happily married. But fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities—even as you grapple with each other’s flaws—you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating. The simple reason is that fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt.4
It’s important to encourage married couples to look for even the little positive things about each other that show up in a normal day. Once they start looking, they may be surprised at how fortunate they are to be married to their best friend!
Turn toward each other
The third of seven ways that married couples can build their friendship or PSO is by turning toward one another. This is a critical way that a couple builds trust, and trust is foundational to any robust friendship. Gottman calls these interactions “bids”:
In marriage, couples are always making what I call “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Bids can be as minor as asking for a back rub or as significant as seeking help in carrying the burden when an aging parent is ill. The spouse responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life. Comical as it may sound, romance is strengthened in the supermarket aisle when your partner asks, “Are we out of butter?” and you answer, “I don’t know. Let me go get some just in case,” instead of shrugging apathetically.
In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent.… There’s a reason that seemingly small events are fundamental to a relationship’s future: Each time partners turn toward each other, they are funding what I’ve come to call their emotional bank account. They are building up savings that, like money in the bank, can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re faced with a major life stress or conflict. Because they have stored up an abundance of goodwill, such couples are less likely to teeter over into distrust and chronic negativity during hard times.5
Gottman and the gospel
Gottman provides some very helpful, empirically proven, and simple skills to help marriages flourish and grow. His observations and practical guidance have proven helpful for countless couples, and, as pastors, we should also always be listening to the pages of Scripture, which are replete with this same sage counsel. Scripture confirms what Gottman is seeing and describing. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in just one of many places. In Ephesians 4:1–6, he says,
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Gottman’s principles can help pastors counsel couples in what it looks like to emulate the humility, gentleness, patience, and love of Christ toward us in the mundane and even difficult places of their marriages. Pastors can encourage couples to put Gottman’s principles into practice, strengthened by the truth that they are new creations in Christ who have been enabled by the Holy Spirit to:
- Remain inquisitive about their spouse, putting in the work of continuing to learn about the other person.
- Look for and focus on the positive in the spouse, instead of the negative.
- Express those positive things instead of keeping them unspoken.
- Turn toward each other instead of away in even small instances.
Each day is a chance for couples to put the grace they have received from Christ into practice by taking advantage of small opportunities to strengthen their friendship with each other and thus the foundation of their marriages.
It seems that what Gottman does is help us understand what it looks like in the very mundane places of life to be humble, gentle, patient, and forbearing in love. For that, we can say thank you, Dr. Gottman. What Scripture does is connect us to the One who has been humble, gentle, patient, and forbearing in love toward us! Father, Son, and Spirit have reconciled us to God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Now we are new creatures in Christ who have a new power by the Spirit to love our spouses. In light of all we have been given, this should be our daily prayer: Lord, have mercy on us that we would not squander Your grace and miss opportunities in the drudgery of daily life to build Positive Sentiment Override with our spouses.
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- John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 4.
- To read about the four remaining ways for couples to connect and build their friendship, see Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
- John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 54.
- Ibid., 71.
- Ibid., 88–89.
This article The Most Important Ingredient to Improve Your Marriage first appeared on timlane.org, January 23, 2016. Adapted for CareLeader.org with permission by author.
Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane.