Emotionally Intelligent Marriages: What Experts Say Works

by Anas Sillwood

Have you ever wondered what makes a marriage successful? Why do some couples stay married and others feel they need to part ways?

I certainly have, and that is partly borne out of my personal circumstances: my parents divorced when I was young and my first marriage sadly ended up the same way.

However, something clicked for the better in my second marriage, and I have now been happily married for 17 years AlhamduliLlah.

I’ve long reflected about the reasons for this and also read widely in the field of marriage relationship advice to try and identify the factors that underpin a successful marriage.

Whilst there are many authors who undoubtedly have contributed some impressive insights, there is one relationship expert who stands out in my estimation: John Gottman, author of the bestselling ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’.

In fact, I became so impressed with his work that I trained to become a Gottman Institute Leader for teaching his book.

A professor of psychology at the University of Washington and founder and director of The Gottman Institute, John Gottman revolutionised the study of marriage by using rigorous scientific procedures to observe the habits of married couples in unprecedented detail over many years.

Observing thousands of volunteer couples in a campus-based apartment – affectionately known as the ‘Love Lab’ – Gottman’s team of scientists recorded all their verbal interactions, body language and physiological information, like heart and pulse rates.

Gottman was able to make the impressive claim that over the course of seven separate studies he could accurately predict whether a marriage would succeed or fail in 91% of cases. More importantly, he used his data and observations to identify what underpinned the successful marriages he encountered, leading him to articulate his famous seven principles that made marriages work.

These seven principles were then incorporated into a more advanced development of the Gottman Institute’s marriage theory, which they coined the Sound Relationship House. You can see it visualised here:

There are nine components identified as part of a healthy marriage, or what Gottman calls emotionally intelligent marriages: the seven floors plus the two weight-bearing walls of trust and commitment.

Knowing these can help you identify potential weak spots in your relationship. Happily married couples typically have all the components of this sound relationship house, even if they are unaware of them.

Let’s look at this house, floor by floor.

Floor 1: Build Love Maps

Unsurprisingly, a deep friendship forms the basis for the foundations of a sound relationship house. However, whilst many experts speak about the need for such a friendship, few go into the practical details of what such a friendship involves. The Gottman Institute model gives us the answer with the foundational three floors, the first being ‘Build Love Maps.’

Successful couples really know each other. They deeply know each other’s inner worlds – their partner’s likes and dislikes, dreams and fears, major life events as well as mundane matters, all contributing to what Gottman calls ‘Love Maps.’ Maintaining this detailed familiarity with each other’s worlds generates a connection and protection to ride out any storms together.

Floor 2: Share Fondness and Admiration

Successful couples make each other feel good about themselves and what each brings to the relationship by vocalising the big and small reasons that they love about each other.

They compliment each other’s efforts, skills, and characteristics and this leads to an increase in the amount of affection and respect in their relationship. They look for things to be grateful for in their spouse rather than honing in on mistakes.

Sharing fondness and admiration is also an effective friendship skill which serves as the antidote for contempt, the most devastating of what Gottman calls ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse,’ and the single greatest predictor of divorce. 

Floor 3: Turn Towards Instead of Away

The small, daily moments of everyday life are actually the building blocks of a marital relationship.

Doing positive small things often can cumulatively make a big difference. Spouses reach out to each via verbal and non-verbal means for some type of positive connection, whether that be communication, affection, support or anything else. When one spouse makes such a ‘bid’ for connection, the other spouse is left with a choice about how to respond.

Successful couples turn towards the bids of their spouse and fulfil their need for connection, making a deposit into the couples’ emotional bank account.

In less healthy relationships, couples turn away by ignoring or missing the bids from their spouse and miss the opportunity to add to their emotional bank account.

In the worst scenario, couples turn against the bids of their spouse by rejecting it in an argumentative manner, unfortunately leading to a withdrawal from their emotional bank account.

Floor 4: The Positive Perspective

Unsurprisingly, how well things are going on the first three floors will largely determine whether you look at your spouse and relationship through a positive or negative lens.

Having what Gottman calls a ‘positive sentiment override’ as opposed to a ‘negative sentiment override’ helps couples give each other the benefit of the doubt, connect like a team, and more effectively resolve conflicts.

When couples feel they lack this positive perspective, it’s a sign that they need to reflect and work on the first three floors which comprise their friendship.

Couples who are doing well with the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House and the resulting positive perspective have a firm basis for not just friendship, but also marital romance and passion.

Floor 5: Manage Conflict

Conflict can seem scary, but it is a natural and inevitable consequence of two unique people with different personalities, outlooks, and habits living together in an intimate relationship.

Conflict can also be seen in a positive light, because it helps us understand how to better know and love our spouses, which deepens our connection.

The issue, then, is how to successfully manage conflict when it inevitably appears, in order to minimise any damaging interactions and to bring about positive conclusions.

There are three keys to successfully managing conflict: 1. accepting your partner’s influence; 2. identifying whether the problem is solvable or perpetual (recurring issues that never really go away because they are underpinned by deep values and hidden dreams); and 3. employing self-soothing tactics to remain calm. More on this topic in a future blog post insha’Allah.

Floor 6: Make Life Dreams Come True

The last two floors involve turning your Sound Relationship House into your dream home.

Successful couples create an open, encouraging atmosphere, where each can be honest about their hopes, values, and aspirations. They want the best for each other and support each other to achieve their individual dreams, whether that be through emotional support, freely given time and effort, or anything else.

Ideally, they build their dream home together by working together to fulfil shared life dreams. 

Floor 7: Create Shared Meaning

‘Make Life Dreams Come True’ and ‘Create Shared Meaning’ often overlap. Working together to make each other’s life dreams come true often involves creating shared meaning, and creating shared meaning can be achieved through identifying and pursuing you and your partner’s dreams.

Shared meaning can be expressed in a number of ways, whether that be through a shared view of the purpose of life, pursuing shared goals, or developing a culture of shared symbols and rituals that express who you are as a team.

The Two Pillars of Trust and Commitment

Trust and commitment support the overall structure. They are the weight-bearing walls that keep your relationship from falling apart.

Trust in one’s spouse is a feeling of security that your spouse will love and be loyal to you in every way.

Commitment is the pledge to make that love grow and taking the steps to realise that.

Betrayal can be looked at in broader terms than merely sexual infidelity. Backtracking on one’s commitment by disconnecting emotionally, siding with one’s family against one’s spouse, or breaking significant promises can also potentially devastate a relationship just like sexual affairs do.

So, that is the summary of the Sound Relationship House, which I’ve tried to keep as brief as possible. I hope it helps to reveal the secrets to a successful marriage.

Want to understand how this plays out in a Muslim marriage? Check out my wife’s book “Secrets of Successful Muslim Couples: Marriage Tips for a Lifetime” by Naielah Ackbarali.

© Muslim Marriage Coach, 2024.

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