Crown Publishing, Three Rivers Press, New York, N.Y.; paperback, 2007; $14.
Readers assume the guise of eavesdroppers in each chapter of this unique book, listening in on two conversations between a wife and husband attempting to discuss a troublesome issue in their marriage.
The authors’ goal is to present “an intimate view of 10 couples who learned to work through serious problems that were threatening their marriages.” These are marriages in which one spouse complains, for example, that the other is always distant and irritable, or that they do not feel close as a couple due to the many crises in their lives, or that they only seem to have time for their children.
In each chapter, readers first mull over the transcript of an initial conversation between a husband and wife, accompanied by the authors’ critique of the conversation’s strengths and weaknesses. In these initial conversations, a number of things go wrong, so to speak. In each chapter’s second conversation, the authors’ advice for improving the couple’s approach to a difficult issue is tried out.
What makes this book different from others, then, is its invitation to readers to assess first the disadvantages and then the advantages of two quite different ways of discussing the same issue. In that way, I found the book genuinely educational.
“Every marriage has perpetual issues — that is, conflicts based on personality differences or preferences in lifestyle that never go away,” the authors comment. Common examples of these issues “include disagreements over spending, where to live or how to handle household chores.”
Still, their research “shows that the happiest couples can live peacefully with their perpetual issues as long as they keep talking about them in an open, productive way. However, perpetual issues that become gridlocked conflicts can be harmful to a marriage,” the authors stress.
John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman are the founders of the Gottman Institute and the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle. They are among the foremost researchers on marriage in the U.S. Joan DeClaire is a writer specializing in psychology, health and family issues. John Gottman is perhaps best known for “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” a widely consulted book on marriage that was a bestseller.
These researchers have “developed a body of advice that’s based on two surprisingly simple truths,” they explain. The first is that “happily married couples behave like good friends,” while the second stresses that “happily married couples handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.”
The authors may capture many readers’ attention when they urge spouses to keep their expectations for happiness in marriage “fairly high.” They write, “Research shows that people with the highest expectations for marriage usually wind up with the highest-quality partnerships.”
The authors say to couples: “If you and your spouse expect to feel fulfilled and satisfied with your relationship, you’ll be more motivated to work toward that standard.”
A particularly compelling section of this book deals with the hazards of what is termed a “conflict-avoiding marriage” – a marriage in which a wife and husband “would rather sidestep disagreements than explore conflicts and the potentially difficult emotions that might surface.”
The authors believe that “learning to express feelings, state needs and address conflicts will help to build intimacy and strengthen” a marriage “so that it can weather hard times.” Otherwise, when life-altering experiences occur, such as “serious illness, a death in the family, job loss or acute financial trouble,” these couples may become “even more emotionally distant from each other.”
The authors’ advice to couples is “to practice telling each other what they are feeling and what they need – even if such expression brings conflicts to the surface, where they have to be acknowledged and managed.”
Another noteworthy point of discussion in this book relates to sharing power in marriage and being open to the influence of one’s spouse. “Couples who have trouble accepting influence from each other often argue and feel defensive,” it says.
When people “allow themselves to be influenced by their partners,” they “stop creating obstacles for each other and learn to compromise,” the authors write. It may seem “paradoxical,” they continue, but “you become more powerful by sharing your power with others.”