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Methods in Couples Therapy: The Gottman Method

ThriveTalk Staff  ∙ Updated: 04/27/2020 Medically Reviewed 

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The Gottman Method is a structured form of couples therapy. It uses thorough assessment and research-based interventions that are grounded in the Sound Relationship House (SRH) theory to overcome relationship barriers and promote positive change.

Gottman Method: What is it?

The Gottman Method is a unique, science-based approach to couples counseling. It is based on the Sound Relationship House theory developed by John Gottman, Ph.D., and his wife Julie Gottman, Ph.D. The Gottmans drew upon four decades of scientific research with more than 3,000 couples to deepen our understanding of relationships, marriage, and couples therapy. Their approach highlights the importance of assessment and skill development in managing conflict, overcoming barriers, increasing understanding, repairing past hurts, and improving connections in relationships.

The Gottman Method encourages couples to build love maps so each partner can learn about the other’s stresses, worries, hopes, joys, and history. Admiration and love are strengthened via expressions of respect and appreciation. The Gottman Method emphasizes conflict management rather than conflict resolution. Marriage mates learn how to speak honestly about their convictions and aspirations and this helps to build trust and commitment to a long-term relationship.

Gottman Method Theory

The foundation of the Gottman Method is the Sound Relationship House theory. The SRH theory consists of nine factors or behaviors that are essential for healthy relationships. Couples who want a closer relationship are encouraged to:

  • Build love maps – this will help partners to learn more about each other’s inner world, joys, hopes, and concerns.
  • Share fondness and admiration – regular expressions of appreciation and respect increase affection and reduce contempt.
  • Turn towards instead of away – state your needs, become more aware of bids for connection turn towards them. Small happy moments are the building blocks of a happy relationship.
  • Develop a positive perspective – a positive mindset improves problem-solving and repair attempts.
  • Manage conflict – conflict is a natural part of all relationships and it may have functional, positive effects. Couples need to understand how to solve problems that are solvable and manage problems that pop up repeatedly.
  • Make life dreams come true – create a comfortable environment where each partner is able to speak honestly about his or her dreams, values, and aspirations.
  • Create shared meaning – learn more about the myths, narratives, visions, and metaphors of the relationship.
  • Increase trust –  it is vital that couples know their partner has their back.
  • Develop commitment – couples must act on the belief that their relationship is a lifelong journey for better or worse. If the relationship becomes worse, both partners must be willing to work to improve it.

How Does Gottman Method Suggest the Mind Works?

Gottman-trained therapists believe there is a science to love. The Gottman Method is built on more than 40 years of clinical research that supports the idea that negativity has a major impact on the brain and unless couples take steps to counteract this negativity, they may drift apart on an emotional level. The approach highlights and addresses mental states and behaviors that influence intimacy. It also helps partners to develop a positive frame of mind that can help them cope with conflict or other negative circumstances.

Conflict may cause partners to speak or behave in ways that seem out of control or unnatural. They may also experience a flight, freeze, or fight response. During a conflict, couples may become emotionally flooded as their limbic system (the portion of the brain that controls emotions, memories, and arousal) and nervous system are activated. This may make conflict management very difficult.

Emotional flooding is very common in relationships. Gottman-trained therapists teach partners how to unflood their emotions, improve communication, and have more effective conflict management.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen

In the Bible, the four horsemen of the apocalypse depict the imminent end of the world. During his studies in relationship science, Dr. John Gottman identified four communication styles that are highly reliable predictors of divorce. He referred to these negative communication styles as the “four horsemen.” They include:

  • Criticism – a personal attack on your partner’s character. It is different from a complaint, which is usually directed at a specific mistake.
  • Contempt – the feeling that your partner is worthless and beneath your consideration. It is fueled by prolonged negative thinking about your partner.
  • Defensiveness – a typical response to criticism where the accused partner makes excuses for an error, tries to shift the blame, and refuses to take responsibility.
  • Stonewalling – a typical response to contempt where one partner shuts down and refuses to respond or interact with the other.

Gottman’s research indicated that how couples argue as well as how they make up after a disagreement are important factors in determining the health of the relationship. He discovered that 83% of marriages that are impacted by the four horsemen become stable over time if both partners learn how to reconcile successfully after an argument.

How Does the Gottman Method Cause Change?

The Gottman Method encourages positive change by disarming heated verbal communication, removing barriers that evoke feelings of stagnation, and creating an atmosphere that promotes understanding, empathy, respect, affection, and intimacy. Partners share their history, explore topics on which they disagree, and learn the components that contribute to healthy relationships. After learning about their relationship dynamics, practicing positive relationship skills, and incorporating coaching from the therapist, couples acquire the tools for checking and maintaining a healthy, happy relationship after therapy.

What Happens in a Gottman Method Session?

Marriage mates who enter Gottman Method Couples therapy begin with an assessment process that helps to determine the therapeutic framework and the interventions that will be used during treatment.

  1. Assessment – During assessment, the therapist speaks with both partners together before speaking with them individually. Couples share their relationship philosophy, history, and therapeutic goals. They also complete questionnaires and receive feedback on their relationship.
  2.  Therapeutic framework – The couple and the therapist decide on the structure and parameters of therapy that are most likely to promote healing. Considerations may include how often the couple meets for therapy, the length of each session, and the overall duration of treatment.
  3. Therapeutic interventions – Couples in therapy learn specific techniques and strategies that strengthen their relationship in three major areas: friendship, conflict management, and the creation of shared meaning. These interventions are designed to help couples learn how to replace negative patterns with positive ones, become closer, develop shared goals, and prevent relapse.

Techniques Used in the Gottman Method

A variety of therapeutic techniques may be used during treatment. Some of these techniques include:

  • Building love maps
  • Using “I” statements instead of “You” statements
  • Breathing exercises
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Avoiding harsh start-ups to a discussion
  • Expressing your opinion without judging or blaming your partner
  • Learning how to de-escalate
  • Learning how to communicate when you are emotionally flooded
  • Learning how to unflood emotionally
  • Learning how to soothe yourself and your partner psychologically

Couples Therapy

Gottman Method Couples therapy integrates classic therapeutic techniques with scientific research. By learning and practicing positive skills, couples are able to foster an increased sense of understanding and empathy within the context of their relationship. Couples learn how to act to maximize their partner’s wellbeing, avoid negative comparisons, minimize their partner’s shortcomings, and cherish their partner’s positive qualities.

As couples progress and improve their relationship, they may begin to phase out of therapy. They may meet for sessions less frequently and begin to test out their newly learned skills as they prepare to terminate therapy. The termination session provides a sense of closure for couples and reminds them of the techniques they learned during treatment. Couples may meet with the therapist after six months to ensure they do not fall back into old habits.

Gottman Method

Does the Gottman Method Work?

While each relationship is unique, Dr. John Gottman believes all relationship conflicts fall into two broad categories: (1) the problem can be solved, or (2) the problem is perpetual and will be a part of your lives, in some form, forever. Gottman claimed that 69% of all marriage issues are perpetual. Gottman-trained therapists are particularly focused on helping couples to manage these types of recurring challenges.

The Gottman Method is effective for couples from all backgrounds, including same-sex relationships. Rather than tackling issues head-on, many couples are encouraged to start indirectly by building a culture of appreciation for each other. Gottman therapists believe small corrections can have a major positive impact on a relationship. Gottman Method Couples therapy is one of the most popular and respected forms of couples counseling today.

What Kinds of Concerns is the Gottman Method Best For?

Gottman Method Couples therapy may be used to treat couples across all cultures, races, sexual orientations, and social groups. Issues that are commonly addressed in therapy include:

  • Communication challenges
  • Frequent conflict
  • Emotional separation
  • Sexual challenges
  • Infidelity
  • Financial concerns
  • Parenting challenges

Couples with a strong relationship may also benefit from Gottman Method Couples therapy. They may use the approach to deepen their understanding of each other, increase intimacy, and strengthen their emotional ties.

How Are Specialists in the Gottman Method Trained?

There is a specific roadmap to certification that individuals must follow if they want to become certified Gottman therapists. There are three levels of training that applicants must complete before they can enter the certification track and work with a consultant to hone their skills and master the Gottman Method.

  • Level 1 training – Applicants are introduced to the primary concepts of the Gottman Method, including basic evaluations and interventions. Applicants also learn how to teach these interventions to couples in therapy so they can use them independently. There are no prerequisites to do Level 1 training and it may be completed online, via DVD, or in person. Level 1 training is designed for mental health professionals, clergy members, interns, students, professors, and researchers.
  • Level 2 training – Applicants must complete Level 1 before they can begin Level 2 training. In Level 2, applicants are able to refine and build upon the skills they learned in Level 1. They also receive more information on relationship theory, couple dynamics, observation, relationship assessment, how to plan treatment, how to use interventions, and how to address co-occurring issues such as addiction or infidelity. Level 2 training may be completed online, via DVD, or in person. Individuals who complete Level 2 are qualified to be listed on the Gottman Referral Network (GRN).
  • Level 3 training – Applicants must complete Level 1 and Level 2 before they can progress to Level 3 training. They must also hold a master’s degree, a doctoral degree, or be enrolled in a graduate program that is related to mental health. Level 3 training is only offered in person. It consists of an advanced practicum workshop that thoroughly examines comorbid issues and resistance to treatment and how they may be transformed into effective healing methods for couples in therapy.
  • Certification track – The certification track involves consultation with a certified Gottman therapist and a video review of each applicant’s ability to use Gottman Method Couples therapy in practice. Applicants must enter the certification track within two years after completing Level 3 and must complete the certification track within two years after entering.
  • Post-certification –  After certification, applicants may enroll in the train-the-trainer program and offer their own Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 training in Gottman Method Couples therapy. They may also conduct workshops for couples in their community.

The Gottman Institute

The Gottman Institute was co-founded by Drs. Julie and John Gottman in 1996. It is located in Seattle, Washington. The purpose of the Gottman Institute is to share research findings on marriage and relationships to help educate, inspire, and heal people around the world. It also offers training to mental health professionals in research-based assessment techniques and intervention strategies. Concerns/Limitations of Gottman Method

Although Gottman Method Couples therapy has helped many couples to improve their relationship, there are some limitations to this mode of treatment. One limitation is that the approach operates from the outside-in rather than from the inside-out. This means couples in therapy must change the way they interact if they want to experience a positive change in their relationship. Consequently, these actions may seem forced or unnatural as intimate partners are asked to behave in a certain way instead of being motivated from within.

Some therapists believe couples need more than a set of skills to build a successful relationship. As a result, these therapists may combine Gottman Method Couples therapy with other emotion-focused therapeutic approaches to help marriage mates develop a better understanding of their needs, desires, and emotional bonds. Critics also claim that the Gottman Method is based on correlational evidence rather than cause-and-effect. Other critics question the validity of John Gottman’s research.

Important Practitioners of the Gottman Method

In 1994, Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman worked together to develop the Sound Relationship House (SRH) theory and research-based interventions. The Gottmans combined John’s extensive research on all types of relationships with Julie’s therapeutic wisdom and skills to create a form of couples therapy that is science-based. The Sound Relationship House theory is the foundation of modern-day Gottman Method Couples therapy.

John Gottman

John Mordecai Gottman was born on April 26, 1942, in the Dominican Republic. He was educated in the United States where he developed a love for advanced mathematics, statistical analysis, and psychological research. During his 40+ year career, he developed numerous formulas, scales, and mathematical models to identify the factors that contribute to relationship stability and divorce. Gottman was attracted to this research due to his own curiosity about how couples build lasting, happy relationships.

Dr. Gottman—a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington—has received several awards for his groundbreaking work on marriage and parenting. Some of his awards include:

  • Four National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Awards
  • The American Family therapy Academy Award for Most Distinguished Contributor to Family Systems Research
  • The National Council of Family Relations, 1994 Burgess Award for Outstanding Career in Theory and Research
  • The American Association for Marriage and Family therapy Distinguished Research Scientist Award
  • The American Psychological Association Division of Family Psychology, Presidential Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Research Contribution

How to Find a Therapist

If you are seeking professional help from a Gottman-trained therapist, you should check the Gottman Referral Network (GRN). The GRN is available to couples around the world and is free to access. Each GRN member has received training in Gottman Method Couples therapy and uses Gottman relationship-building techniques.

GRN members provide mental health care to couples, families, individuals, and children. In addition to helping with relationship concerns, they may also assist with issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, and abuse.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

Any therapist you choose to work with should have a valid license to provide mental health services. If your therapist offers Gottman Method couples therapy, he or she should be able to provide proof of certification. Look for a therapist who is able to communicate well with you and your partner. In addition to their therapeutic skills, effective Gottman therapists also demonstrate scientific dispassion and scientific authority.

Scientific dispassion and scientific authority help to balance the chaos and discouragement that may arise when working with couples in turmoil. For example, it is not unusual for the average person to get caught up the emotional storm of a couple in conflict. An untrained listener may even want to take sides after listening to a feuding couple. However, a trained Gottman therapist will remain fair and friendly to both partners during therapy.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Before entering Gottman Method couples therapy, you and your partner can ask your therapist these questions:

  1. Are you a licensed therapist?
  2. How long have you been practicing?
  3. Are you a certified Gottman therapist?
  4. What experience do you have treating our relationship issues?
  5. What kind of treatments do you use? How effective have they been?
  6. Are appointment times flexible or scheduled?
  7. What are your fees?
  8. Do you accept our insurance?
  9. Do you think you can help us strengthen our relationship?

Find a Therapist Now

If you’ve never considered therapy before, it can feel a little mysterious. The fact is, therapy is a tried and proven method of treating mental health concerns. But it’s also so much more. People get into therapy to accomplish so many things, including getting support to make a big life decision, gaining a deeper understanding of themselves, and even to help them grow into a better and more fulfilled version of themselves.

We know that when you start seeing a therapist, you’re making a commitment of time, energy, and money. That’s why we’ve built ThriveTalk, an online therapy platform built around your schedule. We offer a wide range of therapists from many different backgrounds, all to help you find the person who can help you heal, grow, and achieve your goals on your time. With our simple sign-up process, you can be talking to someone today, no waiting and no excuses. Get started here.

Final Thoughts on the Gottman Method

The Gottman Method helps couples to develop the skills they need to construct their own sound relationship house. Proponents of the approach believe all couples can build new positive habits to replace negative actions that may damage their relationship. If you have been experiencing relationship issues, Gottman Method couples therapy may be able to assist you and your partner. By practicing the right skills and avoiding maladaptive behaviors you can help your relationship to grow in intimacy, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

 

About the author 

ThriveTalk Staff


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