Stronger Marriage

9 Important Skills for Every Relationship

Compiled by Victor W. Harris, MS

       John Gottman is one of the nation's leading researchers on why marriages are successful or unsuccessful. He and his colleagues have pinpointed 9 skills that, if learned, can help to put a relationship on a positive trajectory. As you read through the skills and their brief definitions, check to see if you or your partner are doing them:

The Don'ts

  1. Criticism - Attacking someone's personality or character with accusation and blame (e.g., "You never think of anyone else," or "How can you be so stupid").
  2. Contempt - Intentional insulting, name calling, rolling the eyes, sneering.
  3. Defensiveness - Feeling victimized by others in response to contempt and refusing to take responsibility for personal actions. Being defensive blocks a couple's ability to deal with an issue. Even if one partner feels completely justified in his/her actions, becoming defensive will only add to the couple's problems.
  4. Stonewalling - Withdrawing from interactions and refusing to communicate at all. When couples refuse to communicate about their issues, the relationship becomes fragile. (Note: It is completely fair in a relationship to explain to your partner that you are overloaded emotionally and that you need to take a break and calm down before you say something you don't mean).

The Do's

  1. Calm Down - Disengaging from an interaction before something hurtful is said must endure for at least 25 minutes or longer for a person to really calm down. Otherwise, it is easy to slip back into an emotionally charged conversation and to say things that are hurtful.
  2. Complaint - Bringing up a complaint about a specific issue or behavior is actually one of the healthiest activities a couple can engage in (e.g., "When you fail to call me to let me know you are going to be late, it makes me feel like you aren't considering my feelings and the fact that I will worry about you").
  3. Speak Non-Defensively - This kind of language is an art form that usually includes speaking with a soft voice, beginning with "I feel..." statements rather than "You..." statements, and the trust from the listener to be able to communicate effectively without eliciting defensiveness.
  4. Validate - According to Gary Lundberg, to validate another person, one must:
    1. Listen by giving full attention.
    2. Listen to the emotions being expressed.
    3. Listen to the needs being expressed.
    4. Understand from the other person's point of view.
  5. Overlearn Skills - To overlearn means to master the 8 other skills above so that they remain available to us even when we are tired, stressed, or angry.


Adapted from Gottman, J.M. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, [New York: Fireside, 1994].

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