Marriage and the Attributes of Love

Why Love supersedes the ritual of Marriage

Marriage and the Attributes of Love

John Gottman is a clinical psychologist and a psychological researcher who has spent 40 years studying relationships. His study focused on marital stability and divorce prediction through direct scientific observations. John experienced two divorces before he met his wife of 30yrs, Julie Gottman. He and his wife co-founded and ran a therapy and relationship company called the Gottman Institute. In 1986 Gottman and his colleagues built an apartment laboratory where they observed and interviewed newlyweds. In the laboratory, he studied about 95 couples to identify the nature of their marriages. After the 14-year longitudinal study, he identified four things that would show up in a marriage and threaten it. He called them the four horsemen;


Criticism- He identified criticism as the first horseman, as an attack on the core of the character of an individuals partner. He discovered that in a healthy marriage, couples complain about their partner's behaviour, and not their character. A partner should therefore express a complaint and not give criticism. Like, “ I was scared when you didn’t call me. I thought we agreed we'll be doing this for each other.” Instead of “ Why didn’t you call me. You are selfish and never think of anyone but yourself.”


Defensiveness- He identified defensiveness as a response to criticism. Defensiveness is a recurrent horseman in most relationships, often expressing when one feels unjustly accused or attacked. When one gets defensive, they fish for excuses for their actions and play an innocent victim. Defensiveness creates an issue as the excuses given show that one is not taking a partners concerns seriously and refusing responsibility for wrongs. Over time, this often leads to feelings of invalidation and contempt. 


Contempt- Contempt for John was a sign of a dying or already dead marriage. Contempt is when one treats their partner with disrespect; mocking, ridiculing, insulting, eye-rolling, scoffing and belittling them. Contempt goes beyond criticism; it is disdain, seeing no value in your partner. Sadly, contempt is a high predictor of divorce.


Stonewalling- This is often the response to contempt. It occurs when the listener shuts down and stops responding to their partner. Numbing, withdrawing from interaction, shutting down, turning away, acting busy or engaging in obsessive behaviours. To reach stonewalling, the other horsemen have to build a lot of negativity, becoming a habit. Stonewalling involves a physiological response where the stonewaller is overwhelmed by negative emotions such as anger. It often triggers a flight or fight response.


So what is the significance of Gottman's study in understanding marital issues?


Marriage is a ritual, often culturally accepted, that unites partners together that are committed and romantically inclined to one another. Marriage is an ancient ritual and is recognized as an institution even by law in modern times. Governments recognize marriages due to the benefits of the institution on society that no other relationship has. Every political community has regulated male-female sexual relationships, not because governments care for romance but because it is the only sexual relationship that produces human beings. Such relationships can create a path to physical, moral and cultural maturation as they provide constant delicate care and supervision. Unless children mature, they can never really be healthy, upright, productive members of society. Marriage promotes this legal responsibility.


For a long time, marriage involved the coming together of two people to care for each other, grow, live and experience together. It differs from culture to culture, as with most institutions. Culture involves a lot of things from social behaviour, social norms, customs and beliefs. Social norms are the unwritten rules of behaviour and engagement in a particular group and are the core of a culture. Customs are the underlying ideas of patterned behaviour and is considered a characteristic of life in the group. 


Although marriage differs from culture to culture, a simple fact is that it shows up regardless, serving a purpose. Meaning is what something expresses and signifies. The expression and significance of something are synonymous and should not be separated. If something expresses itself i.e. exists, then it is significant and has a purpose. It is why we discover meaning and purpose as it exists. Marriage exists and therefore has a purpose, and like anything in existence, you need a guide to its true meaning and purpose. 


Marriage is a dynamic institution that changes with changing cultural norms. Culture is built from people, how they interact and coexist. It encompasses rules derived from the existence of people collectively, so culture is part of the nature of that existence. If the collective is grounded on love, so will the culture that springs from them. Just like any unit that is a relationship in nature, guided by love, marriage will flourish. In such marriages, love guides sex, which promotes healing and bonding. Sex not guided by love offers physical release at the end. Over time such sex often hurts instead of healing and can even disconnect people instead of bonding them. 


Love should guide the relationship in the marriage. You find articles claiming that a good marriage should have patience, commitment, trust, attention and love. The irony is that all these are qualities of love. Without love, one cannot be patient, committed and trusting or offer attention consistently. The current definition of love is a passionate thrill, a feeling of euphoria that lacks vital qualities. Separating the qualities of love means you can take away an attribute if so desired. 


Case in point, the removing of fidelity in marriages to open-up marriages. An open marriage is a non-monogamy relationship where partners allow each other to engage in extramarital sexual relationships without naming it as infidelity. When interviewed, the couple's state that they are reshaping the institution to their needs.


John Gottman’s study shows the consequences of losing qualities of love in a marriage. If one does not practice patience, kindness and display arrogance, resentment, constantly keeping records of wrong, you will ultimately reach a point of contempt and stonewalling your partner. The implication being that even if your partner heals, you will not notice and likely condemn them. It is easy to take each other for granted if there is no nurturing of love in an individual and the overall relationship.


Gottman also gave antidotes to the four horsemen; express complaints instead of criticism, take responsibility when one does something wrong instead of being defensive, build a culture of appreciation and respect instead of contempt, self-soothing and relaxing to beat stonewalling. 


John's discovery of what guides a marriage to goodness are the qualities that love exemplifies.


Love guides a marriage to goodness and a person to their bonded partner with whom they will experience growth, heal and transform. Such an environment allows one to express themselves and their significance without threats and intimidation, ridiculing and belittling. Its therefore crucial to embrace the love for self, practising its qualities on self-first so that you can practice them on others and your partner. If not guided by love, one will find themselves in destructive relationships that push you away from love, from your expression and significance.


Love supersedes the individual and the institution as it guides the meaning and purpose of anything; Self or others. Marriage is a ritual and a cultural ceremony, but love is more important than ritual and culture. Patience and kindness; not envying or boasting; not arrogant or rude. Not insist on your way (not self-seeking); not irritable or resentful; not rejoicing at wrongdoing (evil), but rejoices with the truth.  With these qualities, a marriage will bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. The virtues of love should not be separated as all are love.