The Gottman Method: Working with Couples

15 Nov 2015

I love the challenge of working with couples. Every one is different. When my clients tell me that I have made a positive impact on their lives, it is very meaningful. By using Gottman Method Couples Therapy with my clients, I feel as though I have a whole team of experts “behind the scenes” helping me stay on track as I work with a couple. Here are some of the great things about the Gottman Method:

It’s research-based. John Gottman and his team started doing research in 1979. Over the years, they studied thousands of couples in the “love lab” at the University of Washington. Couples were video-taped, which were carefully reviewed and coded, and physiological measurements were taken. Couples were studied longitudinally – for example, as newlyweds, and later when they had their first baby and were adjusting to parenthood.

An example of useful information uncovered in research by the Gottman team is that 69% of the conflicts that couples have are actually “perpetual;” not solvable. (Meaning that only 31% of conflict is truly “solvable”). Couples would argue about an issue as newlyweds, and when they came back a number of years later, they were still arguing about the same things. The key with perpetual problems is to move from gridlock to dialogue. This involves helping each person understand the underlying dreams behind their partner’s position on an issue.

There is a thorough assessment process. The Gottman Method includes a structured process for interviewing the couple together, and then each person separately. Each of them completes an assessment packet privately, in order to assess the relationship’s “areas of strength” as well as “areas of growth.” Before I started using the Gottman assessments, I would sometimes feel perplexed about what was really going on with a couple. With the Gottman assessment process, issues are identified much earlier in the course of therapy.

Areas of strength and areas of growth are presented to the couple in terms of what Gottman calls “The Sound Relationship House;” which includes their friendship system, how they manage conflict, trust, commitment, and creating a shared meaning system.

It’s based on what happy couples are doing that works. The research team tried to figure out: What were happy couples (the “masters”) doing that was different from how unhappy couples (the “disasters”) interacted? It turns out that happy couples – as measured by couples that stay together happily rather than staying together unhappily or divorcing - have a lot less of what Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

  • Criticism – the antidote is to use a gentle start-up instead. This means complaining about the partner’s behavior rather than criticizing their character.
  • Defensiveness – instead, take responsibility for at least some part of the problem.
  • Contempt – rather, build a culture of appreciation. Look for what one’s partner is doing right, instead of everything that they are doing wrong.
  • Stonewalling – do physiological self-soothing, instead of shutting down and being non-responsive to one’s partner. Related to stonewalling, the Gottman team found that when heart rates go above 95 to 100 beats per minute, the adult brain is basically “offline” and taking a break of at least a 20-30 minutes is imperative.

The more the Four Horsemen are present, the greater the likelihood of divorce. Even during conflict, the “masters” have about five positive interactions (repair attempts) for every one negative interaction. On the other hand, the “disasters” have only .8 positive interactions for every one negative interaction.

There are structured “interventions” to use with couples. Rather than just discussing and trying to solve whatever happens to be the subject of conflict at the moment, couples are given tools so that they can better handle their conflict discussions both now and in the future. The Gottman therapist coaches the couple in talking directly with each other, rather than to the therapist.

One of my favorite interventions is “Gentle Start-Up.” Gottman and his team found that how an issue is raised during the first three minutes of a conflict discussion predicts whether the interaction will stay on track or deteriorate.

With “Gentle Start-Up,” the therapist coaches the couple to:

  • Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame.
  • Describe what is happening, rather than evaluating or judging.
  • Talk clearly about what they need in positive terms.
  • Be polite.
  • Give appreciations.

John Gottman and his wife, therapist Julie Schwartz Gottman, are presenting Level 1 training in Salt Lake City on March 11th and 12th of 2016. For more information about this and other trainings, visit www.gottman.com. John Gottman recently updated one of his most popular books, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Check out the 2015 edition!

I have recently completed Level 3 of the Gottman training series. My next step in the training process is entering the certification track. Therefore, I am actively seeking more couples to work with! Another one of my specialties is financial therapy (financial stressors are often cited as the number one stressor for couples).

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