November 16, 2019

Gottman Method Couples Therapy: An Overview

Many people view couples counseling as something to resort to only when problems arise. The stereotypical setup is a chin-stroking therapist who listens as two people berate each other, with the therapist as both instigator and referee. But under the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, Drs. John and Julie Gottman created a whole new paradigm—one that uses research-based methods to help couples come together instead of being torn further apart. It is a method that can and should be used prophylactically and proactively, with the help of a Gottman-trained therapist.

The founders of Gottman Couples Therapy, psychologists John and Julie Gottman, are a husband-and-wife team—two relationship experts who have been studying the components of longevity in love for over 50 years. By quantifying the interactions of more than 3,000 couples in their “Love Lab”, the Gottmans were able to isolate specific behaviors that predict relationship stability and, accordingly, divorce. Their findings led to the development of the “Sound Relationship House” model, which demonstrates the components of a happy relationship through the metaphor of constructing a house. 

The Sound Relationship House model has nine pillars:

“Build Love Maps”

This pillar asks each partner to consider how well she knows the other’s inner truth. By delving into each other’s journey, history, hopes, fears, and dreams, we show our interest in and prioritization of our partner—and, as with a map, we know where to go when our partner or our relationship is in need.

“Share Fondness and Admiration”

This is one of the primary building blocks of friendship, and harkens back to what we learned in grade school: say “please,” “thank you,” and be a good sharer. In this stage of relationship strengthening, we focus on recognizing the small ways our partner may show us caring in the day-to-day, and we practice saying thank you for those gestures. Similarly, we train ourselves to pay attention to the times when our partners acts admirably, where we might otherwise have discounted their actions or taken them for granted, paying them a compliment instead. By expressing appreciation and admiration, we create a culture of friendship and goodwill, and shore ourselves against one of the most chilling harbingers of relationship demise: contempt. 

“Turn Towards Instead of Away”

When things get tough and one partner reaches out, the other partner has a choice: turn away, or “stonewall”—usually due to avoidance, fear, or discomfort—or turn toward, and engage. Each of these postures communicates something to our partner. Though turning away may feel like a more comfortable option when conflict is high, it leaves our partner in the dust, causing them to feel rejected, alone, and uncared for. Meanwhile, outside of high-conflict situations, there are many ways that our partners present opportunities for us to turn toward them and express interest. By learning what our partner’s unique “bids” for affection look like, we can practice turning towards each other at each opportunity for engagement, cementing the relationship as one that is founded in partnership, not divisiveness. 

 

“The Positive Perspective”

In relationships, as in life, we have a choice as to how we view the inevitable challenges—either as intolerable problems, or as part of the journey. The Gottmans have estimated that approximately 70% of all relationship problems are unsolvable, meaning that it is a couple’s attitude about their problems that influences much of their happiness. By focusing on our partner’s and our relationship’s strengths rather than scanning for the faults, we can foster a more gentle and loving perspective that nourishes the soundness of the partnership. 

“Manage Conflict”

The Gottmans emphasize that conflict is a natural, inevitable, unavoidable part of relationships. We can never truly “end” conflict, because conflict will always arise as long as we are mortal and fallible. Moreover, some problems are perpetual and will never go away, whereas others are finite and solvable. Couples who practice the Gottman couples therapy method learn that the most important thing is not to avoid conflict but, rather, to relish in the repair; to have dialogue with your partner about what occurred, and learn how to speak about your perspective in the aftermath without blame. It is also crucial to validate one another’s differing perspectives, and to understand how our partner may have sensitivities rooted in their previous life experiences, causing triggers that we might not otherwise be able to anticipate. When both partners learn how to communicate with this level of transparency, the result is magic. 

“Make Life Dreams Come True”

Here, partners are encouraged to create an environment in which each is safe to share his or her dreams, plans, and hopes. Both partners then hold each other’s dreams and hopes in high regard, and each encourages the other to reach their fullest potential. The converse—a relationship in which a partner is spurned for the things she values most—undermines the relationship to its very core. 

“Create Shared Meaning”

In many ways, a relationship is like a story told by two people in order to understand the beautiful way they came together, and their shared purpose on this earth. When we unite under the same narrative structure—the “how we met,” the “why we joined”—then we tacitly affirm each other through the very human power of shared myth.

“Trust”

This pillar can best be summed up with modern colloquialisms: each partner should have each other’s back and be each other’s “ride or die”. When both partners know that the other cares about her best interests as much as he cares about his own, they are able to reach that crucial state of psychological relaxation known as trust. 

“Commitment”

The final pillar is perhaps the wellspring from which everything else must flow. With commitment, both partners truly believe that this relationship is their forever journey—for better or worse. This means emphasizing each other’s positive qualities, comparing each other favorably with others, and refraining from disparaging each other. 

Gottman Method Couples Therapy begins with a comprehensive assessment that determines which areas of the Sound Relationship House require intervention. We provide each couple with a personalized treatment plan based on the results of the assessment, and structured interventions are selected from their plan at each session. The structured and skills-based nature of the Gottman method ensures that the couple leaves each day feeling like they have made progress and learned skills that they can take home to continue to improve their relationship. It is an incredible journey for couples to undertake, and one we utilize not only in our practice as psychologists, but, tellingly, in our personal love relationships, too. 

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