Some patients prefer to use a specific type of Relationship Counseling called the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy. Based on Dr. John Gottman’s research, this type of therapy is designed to help teach specific tools to deepen friendship and intimacy in one’s relationship.
What follows is how I approach and assess a relationship using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, and what questions I tend to keep in the back of my mind when working with a couple. For simplicity’s sake, gender pronouns are arbitrarily mixed.
Assessment of Friendship and Intimacy
Anyone can learn the tools for effective communication and how to fight fairly. What a therapist cannot do is teach you to be friends with each other. This is an essential and critical step in identify relationship potential and must always be addressed first and foremost.
Global Relationship Satisfaction
On measures of relationship satisfaction, are you mostly happy with your relationship, or unhappy? There can be a variety of possible causes for relationship unhappiness. If so, in order to work on the relationship, both partners need to identify and discuss the reasons for any perception of unhappiness. In this case, therapy often includes:
- Helping the dissatisfied partner talk about his unhappiness by stating what his needs are (as opposed to what they are not).
- Encouraging the other partner to ask questions to deepen their understanding of why her partner needs these things from her.
- Assessing whether the couple has a meta-emotion difference, especially in how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with the expression of negative emotions.
- Seeing if either partner has experienced some betrayal by the other partner in the past, especially the dissatisfied partner feeling betrayed by the other. Betrayal can be physical, emotional, blatant or subtle.
- After reviewing what may be missing for the dissatisfied partner, help the couple to create more rituals of connection.
- Finally, assess whether conflict management problems are interfering with the dissatisfied partner’s happiness, and if so, use Gottman conflict management tools as appropriate.
Death of the Relationship
Are one or both seriously considering ending this relationship? There may be consistent thoughts of leaving and, if so, one more more steps may already have been taken in that direction. In this case, it’s important to clarify the goals and expectations for therapy.
If there is dissatisfaction in this area, but the couple does not want to separate or divorce, being honest about the serious concerns about the relationship is important. An identification of what changes each needs to rebuild trust in each other and to make the relationship viable may be in order. If conflict management appears to be dysfunctional, restructuring how the couple manages conflict is important. If the couple is so emotionally distant that there is virtually no conflict at this point, work will focus on strengthening the friendship and creating shared meaning.
If a significant betrayal or series of betrayals has occurred, and the couple is committed to working on the relationship, the focus of therapy will be on each issue beginning with the most significant one(s), with the goal to rebuild trust after it has been broken. If the couple has decided to proceed to a permanent separation or divorce, then the goal is to focus on the communication issues surrounding the decision. If children are involved, discussions regarding co-parenting considerations are taken if appropriate in an effort to make the separation as amicable and non-damaging to the kids as possible.
If there are issues with Love Maps, it means that at least one partner doesn’t feel adequately known by the other. She might also worry that her partner is not interested in knowing her or continuing to get to know her in the future. This may be due to a host of problems, including poorly managed conflict, leading parallel lives, her partner’s lack of knowing how to connect, her wanting more friendship from him (but him not being aware of this), and so forth. Problems with Love Maps indicate a real problem in the couple’s relationship, as it will have weakened one or both partner’s view of their friendship.
Hopefully, the couple has built a friendship in which each partner feels known by the other partner. In this case, they have an awareness of each other’s hopes and aspirations, which is a strength in their relationship. A strong friendship between partners is linked to a long-lasting relationship and to sustained passion and romance. Partners are encouraged to continue building Love Maps, and learning more about their partner’s internal world to maintain a lasting friendship.
Fondness and Admiration
Do both partners feel respected, admired, and well loved by one another? High fondness and admiration in a relationship is one of the three components of a good friendship. Both should have a sense that their partner is proud of what they have accomplished, and that they do not feel taken for granted. By creating this “culture of appreciation” in the relationship, they frequently tell their partner, “thank you” for the things that their partner does.
However, a poor fondness and admiration system indicates a significant problem in the friendship. If so, one or both may lack a sense of pride in what their partner has accomplished and as a result the other can feel taken for granted.
The deterioration of fondness and admiration can follow times of poor conflict management, past emotional injuries or betrayals, turning away from each other’s bids for connection, or refraining from expressing needs. If there have been significant incidents of betrayal, emotional injury or purposeful turning away from or against one another, it is crucial that these regrettable incidents be processed in order to rebuild fondness and admiration.
Having each partner focus on what the other is doing right, rather than what is being done wrong, is a start. Thanking the other and expressing appreciation daily can help, as does asking each other, “How can I help you feel more loved and appreciated in the coming week?”
Turning Towards or Away
Turning Towards is a fancy way of saying that you feel that your partner is responding to your needs. Having built and maintained a sensitive and robust friendship in which both turn towards one another’s bids for attention and respond to each other’s needs for confiding, having fun together, and laughing together is highly beneficial.
If the relationship has a problem Turning Towards each other, both might be making bids for connection but their needs may not be being noticed or responded to. They may have stopped making bids for connection altogether due to past failures to connect. They may not be having fun or sharing laughter together and may sense that their interest and enthusiasm is rarely matched by their partner’s.
Sometimes it is difficult to create enough safety and trust in the relationship to rebuild the Turning Towards system until past failed bids for connection have been fully processed. Processing failed bids for connection is the next step, especially those that have felt like emotional injuries or betrayals. Sometimes, partners innocently don’t recognize when a bid for connection is being made and they need the tools to learn how to recognize valid bids. Occasionally, partners believe they myth that their needs should be able to be recognized and responded to without being expressed (i.e., loving partners should be able to read each other’s minds). A family history of getting ones’ needs met can shed some light on whether or not it was ok to express needs.
Satisfaction with Passion and Romance
It’s not uncommon for couples presenting for therapy to state that their passion and romance (independent of sex) are not going very well in their relationship. Making romance a priority is important, and identifying the roadblocks towards this are important to address. Sometimes it is simply the problem of not simply making the time for it, or genuinely lacking the knowledge of how to connect with their partner.
If other relationship problems have diminished the desire for romance and passion, it’s important to be aware of the connection between these and relationship satisfaction. This can include the need for calm conflict management or a new plan for how to include romance in the relationship, especially after children are born. A lack of passion can indicate busy and or/chaotic lives, problems in other parts of the relationship, or simply not making it a priority.
Satisfaction with the Quality and Frequency of Sex
Dissatisfaction may be due to poor communication about what satisfies each other sexually, or from other problems in the relationship such as conflict management, feelings of betrayal, lack of friendship or childhood sexual or relationship abuse. Helping the couple to talk more about their specific sexual likes and dislikes can help. If the couple has abstained from sex for several months or longer, they need to discover and learn again what the other likes and enjoys.
If there is a history of sexual or other abuse affecting a partner’s sex life, there may be a need for individual therapy for the abused partner. However, if the abused partner prefers it, the individual issues stemming from the abuse may also be worked on during the conjoint sessions. This has the advantage of extending the compassion of the non-abused partner towards the abused partner, and softening negative judgment and (self-)blame.
There may also be an issue of too much, or not enough, sex in the relationship. In this case, there may be a lack of clear communication about any dissatisfaction with each other.
Emotional Disengagement and Loneliness
This is an often overlooked (and unexpressed) area in a troubled relationship. Do both partners feel connected and engaged with one another, or is there a feeling of being lonely in the relationship? Can they usually count on one another when they have a need to connect? Have they established a good balance of independence and interdependence?
Both partners need to talk about what each needs from one another in terms of interconnectedness. This can be hard to do as needs are often expressed as negative rather than positive, which can quickly revert to blame or criticism. Stating what you do need rather than what you don’t want is the priority.
Since loneliness and emotional disengagement are ripe grounds for choosing to have an affair, it’s important to ask if either partner has done so. This may require an individual session with each partner. If an affair surfaces, especially one that has occurred within the last 5 years, it needs to be shared with the other partner and thoroughly processed before any other work can be done.
Both partners often need to become more aware of the signals used by each other when connection is desired. They need predictable means of connecting which are defined and practiced frequently within the relationship, e.g., during dinner, sharing a daily recap of the highlights and lowlights of each person’s day. Children can also be included in this conversation.
There are a few key areas (four, actually) that make all the difference in the world to help “detour” a couple from having an unhealthy conflict discussion. If Friendship and Intimacy are the foundation of the metaphorical relationship house, Trust and Commitment are the walls that support the house; without them, it doesn’t matter what you build in-between.
Chaos and Control
If the relationship is currently unpredictable and cannot provide security, order or peace at the home, the couple will have a hard time navigating any conflict discussions. In these cases, the couple is likely overwhelmed by the negative, unpredictable events in their lives, and the stress from these events is spilling over into the relationship causing increased irritability and conflict. External stresses (those coming from sources outside the relationship) and a lack of stress management may also contribute to this sense of non-security.
Trust in the Relationship
Does the couple share a sense that neither has been betrayed? If one or both partners do not trust this relationship and feels a fundamental lack of trust and safety, they are headed for trouble. Often one partner can feel emotionally injured and betrayed in the relationship, however the other may not feel that way and may be unaware of the other’s hurt feelings. Understanding the events that led the couple to this stage is the first step in rebuilding trust.
The therapist will often role model for the partners how to describe his or her reality without using blame or criticism.
Elicit from each what they need in order to rebuild trust in the relationship. Then, support the other to commit to whatever steps he is willing to take to help his partner to rebuild her trust in him.
Are both partners committed to making this relationship last? For example, after an argument, one partner may have serious doubts about whether he should stay in this relationship and although the other feels committed to this relationship, she may not know how uncommitted her partner is. As a result, while working hard on the relationship herself, she may feel that her partner is not present or working with her. This dynamic may leave her feeling very lonely. There may also be power struggles in which one partner thinks that if his partner “wins”, then he loses. The fundamental issue is that he has not made the transition from “Me” to “We” thinking. Sometimes a partner has felt betrayed, emotionally injured, or neglected in the relationship, leading to a “conditional” commitment. If this is true, it’s important to process the events that left either person feeling this way.
There may be an affair, one person using the internet or other forms of pornography (such as chat rooms) for self-gratification, or there may be substance-dependence or addiction. These questions might need to be addressed in a private, individual session with each partner rather than together. If the answer to any of these is yes, individual therapy may need to be added. Exploring whether there is any trauma or life history that makes commitment difficult can be useful in understanding the impact of this history on their relationship and the inability to commit to their partner.
The bottom line is to explore and identify what dynamics in the relationship itself are making commitment difficult for one or both partners.
Personally, I feel this deserves its own section. How we feel about feelings (Meta-Emotions) is a significant issue in both individual life and that of a relationship. Sometimes, a partner does not think sharing emotions is productive or helpful. Other times, a partner can think emotions are helpful. When there is a conflict between these, or if both disengage from their emotions, this can be a relationship red flag, but not for the reason you might think. It’s not that communicating or not communication about emotions is good or bad; it’s that you need to know how to be able to speak each other’s language. This way, as life presents each of us challenges, we know how to be there to provide support to our partner.
For example, one person may believe that emotions can be a guide for how to live life. She may like to talk about her feelings and try to understand other people’s feelings as well. In summary, she is comfortable in the world of emotions and may prefer to be emotionally responsive and expressive.
Compare and contrast this with her partner who is not so sure that the world of emotions is productive and helpful. He may tend to believe that people can and should control their negative emotions. He may prefer to have mostly positive thoughts and emotions, and want other people, including his, to try to do the same. He may believe that people should try to curtail or stop having negative emotions and should just “get on with life” and “roll with the punches.”
This difference in attitudes about emotions is often a source of conflict and discomfort in a relationship. One person may end up feeling lonely and misunderstood because she can’t share her emotions with her partner. She may experience her partner as “not there for her” when she needs him. She may also think that her partner disapproves of her feelings, and that she has to hide them from him in order to be acceptable to him. She may feel negatively judged by him for being “irrational.” Her partner, in turn, may think she “can’t control” his emotions and is much too needy and demanding. He may not know how to deal with negative emotions and may be overwhelmed by them.
Exploring how each partner developed his or her belief system about the role of negative emotions in their world can shed some light on the subject, including childhood histories in terms of how emotions were expressed and how they were comforted within each of their families. Often one partner’s upbringing regarding emotions differed widely from how the other was raised. Both partners need help to better understand and accept their differences regarding emotions.
Sometimes it is useful to see if a partner would be willing to try to learn how to be more emotionally present for the other, especially when they are in need of support. This can serve as a route to allow the partner with Meta Emotion issues to learn whether he might want to voice his own feelings to his partner in order to receive more support from her.
Even though there is no right or wrong with how one feels about sharing emotions, it is true that social connection is the single best predictor of longevity (so it’s ok to need your partner). Voicing negative feelings can help diminish them since people tend to get more “stuck” in negative feelings when they suppress them rather than express them.
Dealing with Conflict
Here’s where the nitty-gritty aspects of “how to fight” come into play. Breaking down the different aspects of conflict discussions will help in navigating these difficult challenges.
When most conflict discussions begin with blaming, criticism, or statements that your partner is flawed in character or personality, you are struggling with Harsh Startup problems. In John Gottman’s research, he found that the first three minutes of how a couple raised a conflict issue (i.e., “Start-Up”) predicted how the rest of the conversation will go and could even be an indicator of how successful the future of the relationship would be. Harsh Start-Up is a serious problem if it exists in a relationship and needs to improved. When Softened Start-Up is used to start a conflict discussion, it tends to predict that it go well, whereas when Harsh Start-Up is used, it usually predicts that a negative outcome. Softened start-up needs to replace harsh start-up for both partners.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Do disagreements in the relationship involve the use the Four Horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling? Or is there disagreement on whether the disputes have any of these characteristics?
These four behaviors are referred to by Dr. John Gottman as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse” and are used to predict significant problems for couples regarding conflict management:
- Criticism is blaming a relationship problem on personality flaws in your partner.
- Contempt means combining criticism of your partner with descriptions of your own superiority and disgust with your partner.
- Defensiveness is defending against your partner’s criticism or contempt by either denying any responsibility for the problem, acting like an innocent victim, or counter-attacking your partner by criticizing him or her while ignoring his or her complaints.
- Stonewalling involves shutting down completely and refusing to offer any verbal or non-verbal responses to your partner’s statements. Stonewalling may be accompanied by flooding (being physiologically in a flight-or-fight state).
These behaviors are the best predictors of relationship breakup as they make it very difficult to arrive at a solution to issues. Sometimes, this is simply a result of poor communication skills; sometimes, there is a hidden agenda or underlying feelings within each partner’s communication. The goal is to learn more responsible, appropriate skills and to elicit ideal dreams, feelings, beliefs, or core needs that fuel each partner’s position so that their understanding of each other can deepen, even in the midst of conflict.
Do one or both partners tend to get flooded during arguments? Flooding means that when a couple discusses disagreements or hurt feelings, one or both tend to feel overwhelmed. This feeling of being overwhelmed is referred to as, “Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA)”, or “fight-or-flight.”
DPA as a very uncomfortable state in the body, often signaled by a heart-rate above 95 beats per minute, or if the person is very athletic and fit, above 80-85 beats per minute, while they are simply sitting and talking. They want to either run away from each other or make their partner stop talking. If they can’t do either one, they may lose control and resort to verbal, and in some cases, physical attack, or they may stay in one place but shut down entirely and stop all normal responses to the conversation in order to withdraw (“stonewalling”). Withdrawing is a partner’s attempt to shut out the stimulation so that he or she can internally calm down.
Learning how to take a temporary break during conversations at home when either partner is getting flooded is an important skill to practice. Each partner should identify what activity would help them calm down when flooded, so that if flooded at home, they know what to do to self-soothe.
There may be relevant history that may be connected to the behavior of flooding. Past traumas, anger dealt with badly in their families of origin, or past relationship betrayals either during childhood or adulthood can play a part. Often, one partner doesn’t understand the effect that flooding has on their partner; often, they end up criticizing each other. Identifying what their partner can do for them that would be helpful when feeling flooded can be of use. Agreeing on the details of how a break can be taken at home is often overlooked, yet extremely necessary, to combat flooding.
When you accept influence from your partner, this means that when you try to resolve a conflict, you are flexible and consider the other person’s feelings and suggestions. This helps to ease the way towards a compromise. The ability to accept influence from each other helps to avoid power struggles and to create win/win rather than win/lose solutions to relationship problems.
If one person does not usually accept influence from their partner, this makes it hard to avoid a power struggle when discussing problems and may block both from coming to compromise or reaching agreements. Rejecting influence from your partner often comes from an underlying fear about what will happen if you do accept influence. Sometimes a partner has experienced painful repercussions from accepting another person’s influence in the past, either in his or her family-of-origin or in earlier adult relationships. Highlighting this fact to deepen both partners’ understanding of how frightening accepting influence might be is an important step for relationship growth.
Accepting influence can result in positive outcomes, such as building greater trust, dissolving resentments, creating deeper connection and intimacy, and feeling greater support and safety within the relationship. Depending on the issues discussed, accepting influence may also help partners honor each other’s dreams, which can greatly strengthen their bond together. The goal is to deepen your understanding and compassion for each other, which in turn may also help each partner accept influence more easily.
Does compromise exist on both sides in the relationship? If not, one or both may feel like they are always giving in when there’s a disagreement, which if left unchecked, will grow into resentment. You may start to view your partner as stubborn or rigid, and begin to resent him. You may eventually disengage from him emotionally and/or physically, leaving both partners to feel lonely and frustrated in the relationship. In turn, the parter who refuses to compromise may feel victorious in often “winning” their arguments, but then feel hurt and confused if their partner eventually shuts down and pulls away.
Fear, anger, or early childhood history may relate to problems with compromise. It’s important to explore what it means to each partner to compromise. For example, for some men, it may mean that he is not being a strong ‘patriarch’ for the family. Or for some women, it may make her feel like she is not being a good ‘feminist’ but instead is being too subservient. Understanding differences in each partner’s histories and meaning systems can create differences in attitudes about compromise. This can help minimize blame or criticism arising from one partner’s unwillingness to compromise.
It’s useful to understand each other’s positions on the issue being discussed before moving towards compromise. This allows each of you to sort out what aspects of your positions on an issue are inflexible and cannot be compromised, versus what aspects are more flexible and can be compromised. Inflexible aspects often include core needs, dreams, values or life purposes that pertain to this issue. Flexible aspects for an issue usually involve answers to questions like, ‘when?’ ‘how?’ ‘where?’ ‘how often?’ ‘how much?’ ‘for how long?’, etc. Once you have shared with each other your inflexible and flexible aspects, examine where there is overlap. While trying to honor each other’s inflexible core needs and life dreams, discuss with each other how to fashion a compromise using the aspects in which they more flexible.
Negative Sentiment Override
The expectation of seeing only bad things is the hallmark of Negative Sentiment Override. With Negative Sentiment Override, you feel negative about your partner, are hypervigilant about the other’s negativity, and expect criticism or put downs, no matter what they do or say. Negative Sentiments overriding positive feelings about each another, so you often hear or see negativity in whatever your partner says or does, even when your partner says something neutral or positive. Neither ends up feeling their partner is their ally.
Negative Sentiment Override cannot be reversed without improving the quality of friendship and the ways you process conflict. Negative Sentiment Override cannot be remedied by working on it directly and is instead an indicator that other aspects of the relationship have not been going well. Negative Sentiment Override takes a long time to create, so it will take time to repair. Be patient.
Is there an attempt to make repair attempts during conflict discussions? This negative cycle can indicate that conversations slide downhill because one person either gets flooded or expresses criticism, contempt or defensiveness. When initiating a repair to get the conversation back on track, the other does not usually accept the repair. If the repair is not accepted, then the couple cannot get their conversation back on track in order to re-establish a positive flow in their communication.
For example, if your partner feels criticized and is starting to feel defensive, rather than expressing defensiveness, they might initiate a repair with words like, “I’m starting to feel defensive. Can you say that in another way?” You can accept their with words like, “Oh, Ok, let me try it again.”
The problem can escalate if you make a similar repair attempt and your partner ends up saying, “No, I can’t rephrase it. You heard me the first time!” This refusal to accept your repair attempts may leave you feeling hurt, frustrated and powerless to keep conflict discussions on the right track.
Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that a couple’s ability to make successful repairs is the major difference between couples whose relationships last and those whose relationships don’t last. The inability to make successful repairs is a serious problem in any relationship.
Identifying whether or not both partners are actually making any repair attempts is helpful in order to be able to learn feel that you are able to respond. If repair attempts aren’t being successfully made, we explore what is keeping them from doing so. For example, a wife may harbor underlying resentments that are not being directly addressed, thus motivating her to maintain ongoing conversational negativity. Or she may fear conversations becoming more positive because she fears getting closer to her husband. Issues like these should be surfaced and understood so that both partners can be helped to move past them.
If one or both partners report a difficult family of origin history, this can create problems in navigating relationship conflict. Having an individual session with each partner to explore family-of-origin histories and especially any trauma or negative experiences is a good first step. If both partners have shared their experiences with each other, explore whether they are aware of the role each other’s experiences may still be playing in their current relationship.
One partner may carry enduring vulnerabilities (emotional baggage) in this relationship. It is important to understand that in regrettable incidents between partners, the one with the more difficult family history may be getting inadvertently triggered by their partner’s words or actions that remind them of past painful family events. These triggers may be contributing to escalating conflict between both of them.
The goal is to try to eliminate interactions that trigger either partner’s enduring vulnerabilities from the way the couple normally relates. For example, if one partner’s past history of physical abuse gets triggered by her boyfriend’s loud expressions of anger, having him learn to quiet his voice when expressing his angry feelings can go a long way. Anger can still be expressed, just not by yelling.
When past traumas have clearly affected current relationship processes, it’s essential to go slowly. Especially with sexual abuse history, it may take one or both partners a long time to recover their own sexuality and ability to be intimate. When particular historical traumas have surfaced, individual therapy may be indicated.
Specific Areas of Concern
Is there reported difficulty with emotional distancing, or do they generally feel emotionally connected and that they can express emotions fairly easily with one another? In the case of feeling emotionally disconnected, a principal concept is to raise the issue between the couple without either feeling blamed by each other for it. The spouse that feels shut off from her partner may feel that her husband is not particularly interested in her nor appreciated which has led her to feel distant from him. She may also not feel safe enough with her spouse to confide in him.
If there is a “regrettable incident” behind the disconnect, empowering the couple to explain their own points of view about what happened during any significant incidents is the next step while the other partner listens, making sure that each takes some responsibility for the incident when appropriate. Sincere apologies will be more easily accepted after processing these incidents rather than at the outset.
If no regrettable incidents precipitated the distance, but one partner needs a different quality of listening from the other in order to be closer to him, help her to identify her needs about listening more specifically. For example, does she need him to listen to her feelings before offering advice? Helping her to express what she does need from her partner rather than what she doesn’t need or hasn’t liked is a relevant step; supporting her partner to respond to her appropriately is equally key.
Creating rituals of connection to initiate change can help increase connections amongst partners. Rituals of connection are patterns of behavior that help the couple to connect in a safe and predictable way on a frequent basis. A good example is a time set aside each evening to check in with each other about how their day went. Rituals of connection may also include ways to have fun, like a weekly date night, ways to say good-bye at the beginning of the day, or ways to re-unite at the end of the day. Details of how these rituals of connection will be planned, initiated and completed should be fleshed out so each partner knows what to expect.
It is possible that past history from one or both partners’ lives before this relationship has contributed to the difficulty in emotionally connecting with each other. Support the need to share this story with the other, so that the other can better understand any fears and concerns about connecting each other.
Couples with emotional distance between them lose track of who their partner really is and how that partner may have changed over time. One spouse may feel close to his wife, but his wife’s feeling distant would imply she doesn’t feel well known by him. Picking open-ended questions to ask each other and discuss can help to deepen both their knowledge of each other’s feelings, goals, needs, and experiences. The New York Time’s article from 2015, 36 Questions that Lead to Love, is a useful exercise for this process.
Both partners need to understand the importance of Turning Towards and connecting with one another when bids are made rather than away or against. Bids for connection include attempts to get the other partner’s attention, interest, or support. Dr. John Gottman found in his research that successful couples turn towards each other’s bids for connection 85% of the time, while unsuccessful, unhappy couples only Turn Towards each other’s bids 35% of the time.
Can the couple handle stressors outside the relationship? It is possible that one or both spouses does not feel supported by their partner when discussing stressful things happening outside the relationship. Research by Dr. Neil Jacobson has shown that the greatest predictor of couple therapy relapse is the couple’s inability to handle external stress. It is urgent that both partners understand that it is important for them to find ways to master this ability. Dr. John Gottman’s research also showed that stressed partners feel best when their partners listen, ask questions, and express empathy rather than jumping into solving the problem. This helps the stressed partner to feel less alone.
Learning how to listen better, to ask Open-Ended questions about their partner’s stress, (especially their feelings about what’s most upsetting for them), and to express empathy to deal with stresses from outside the relationship is the solution to this area of difficulty. What is not of help is to problem-solve or offer advice unless their partner asks for it.
Relatives and Extended Family
Studies have found it crucial for the success of the relationship that couples put their partners first before others. If there are problems with how the couple relates to their in-laws, discussing the history behind this can help to open the door towards discussing their feelings, thoughts and beliefs about this topic. This works by focusing on having each partner deepening his or her understanding of the other’s point of view before trying to negotiate a compromise; conflict-focused interventions can be useful here.
There may be cultural differences between the partners in how they relate to or respect their in-laws that could contribute to their difficulties. In some cultures, married couples are expected to live with or near their parents, resulting in one partner taking sides if the partner and parents disagree.
It’s normal for most people to feel insecure from time to time, and what helps the most is reassurance that the other partner still finds the insecure person desirable. If there are problems with jealousy or flirting in the relationship, this can be a red flag for effectively navigating conflict discussions. Both partners need to feel secure with one another.
When this is not the case, it is likely that one or both partners feel insecure in this relationship and worry their partner isn’t committed to them. Their perceptions of each other’s flirtatiousness may range from accurate to being a distorted view of their partner’s behavior. It is important they discuss this issue.
Processing one or more past incidents to focus on in which they felt jealous due to the other partner’s behavior can help to more deeply understand one another’s feelings in each incident and hear validation of those from their partner. It is possible that childhood feelings or experiences from before this relationship may have been triggered during each incident. Each partner needs to take responsibility for what he or she may have contributed to in each incident. Identify what each partner could do differently the next time to avoid incidents like these.
Feelings of being appreciated and respected in this relationship can play a role in jealousy. If lacking, increasing one’s overt expressions of respect and appreciation in the relationship can help.
Learning to voice insecurities and jealousies without criticism or contempt is a learned trait that can help transform the marriage by focusing on the partner’s feelings, the situations that evoke those feelings, and their needs in these situations.
It’s important to explore whether or not each partner is content with their sexual relationship. If not, their discontent may contribute to their behavior and perceptions of each other. Each partner should state what they want in their intimate life together.
Emotional or Sexual Affairs
If both partners agree that there are no problems regarding affairs in their marriage, this may a real strength if they feel strongly committed to the relationship and have not had affairs. It is also possible that the relationship has not reached a level of commitment where there is an expectation of fidelity, or the partners have agreed that affairs are acceptable and neither partner feels threatened by them (although this is rare).
If one or both partners acknowledge that an affair has occurred in the past and results in problems for the relationship, then feelings of insecurity about the betrayal and resulting mistrust need to be promptly addressed. Their commitment to the relationship may be questionable if not, shredded, as a result.
In order for marital therapy to work effectively, it’s especially critical to make sure the affair(s) are over before doing couples therapy. If the affairs are not over, it’s not uncommon to referring the person still having the affair for individual therapy to help that person decide which relationship he or she wants to sustain. Again, couple’s therapy is not appropriate when an affair is still occurring.
Affairs may have destroyed the fabric of the relationship, but it can be rebuilt. Many couples have sought help for affairs but have been told to either not discuss them or to forgive their partners prematurely. Neither approach is likely to have worked. Affairs typically generate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the betrayed partners, including hyper-vigilance, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about the affair, depression, emotional numbing, and occasional emotional explosiveness. It is important to evaluate each partner for signs of PTSD, and if either partner is suffering from it, a discussion of what PTSD involves can help start the process towards healing so that they can better understand each other’s behavior, feelings, and fears.
Each affair should be dealt with in turn. The betrayed partner should be encouraged to ask questions about the affair, including when it began, how it evolved, who it was with, and so on, with the other partner answering the questions non-defensively. The betrayed partner, however, should be dissuaded from asking questions about the actual sexual acts committed, since those questions usually trigger deeper traumatizing imagery for the betrayed partner. Transparency and honest answers are essential here in order for trust to begin to be rebuilt.
The partner who had the affair should also be supported to listen to the betrayed partner’s feelings about the affair without getting defensive. The other partner should be given non-critical and non-contemptuous ways of describing his or her feelings, and encouraged to bring up those feelings as much as possible only during therapy sessions. If the feelings spill over at home, that partner may want to write them down.
Only after most questions have been answered and feelings have been heard, and after the betraying partner has deeply apologized for having the affair, can the therapist then begin to explore problems in the relationship that may have precipitated the affair. Beginning this process before the initial steps are taken risks blaming the betrayed partner for the affair, which in fact, was a choice made by the betraying partner alone.
Explore all areas of the relationship needing intervention and change in order to begin re-structuring the relationship, rebuilding trust, and hopefully moving towards re-commitment. From time to time, the work may slide back to more questions being asked and feelings being expressed about the affair. Honor those, then return to the rebuilding process.
Once the first partner’s affair has been fully processed, move on to working on the other partner’s affair in turn, if present.
Basic Values and Goals
In the relationship, do both partners agree on basic values, goals, and lifestyle? This agreement is a great strength in any relationship, because Gottman’s research has found that 80% of breakups are about people drifting apart in this area. In this case, they may not be discussing these issues at all, which could be a serious issue for the relationship.
Discussion about these issues can be helpful in order to understand each partner’s choices and why he or she has made those choices while not taking sides about which values, goals, or lifestyles are best. Structuring discussions between each partner about their differences in values, goals and lifestyle preferences can help start the process. It helps to present one’s views without criticizing the views of the other partner. The listener should be encouraged to ask Open-Ended questions such as, What is most important about that view? Is there some childhood history that has led to this viewpoint? Does the speaker have some ideal dream related to his or her viewpoint?
The goal of this discussion is to negotiate compromises on differing viewpoints. This helps the partners to accept influence from one another and reach a compromise that both can live with.
Housework and Childcare
Does the couple agree that they are a good team in managing household tasks? If so, this means that they believe the division of housework, parenting, and other work is fair, and they both like how they are handling these issues. This is a strength in any relationship as this issue is often a source of conflict in other relationships,
Is there disagreement on whether there are any financial issues?
Having Fun Together
Do both spouses actually enjoy time with each other, and have many ways of playing and having fun together? Research has shown that play is the waking equivalent of dreaming as it is restorative. Often, life for many couples becomes an infinite to-do list and fun is their last priority. Research studies have demonstrated that couples that laugh together have a greater chance at long-lasting success.
Spirituality, Religion, Ethics
Having a sense of spiritual connection with one another means that both share important values. They should discuss what values they do share and it should be emphasized how positive and important this is to the maintaining the strength of their relationship.
Sharing important values about parenting is a strength for any solid relationship.
If there are any distressing events in the relationship, this can dramatically impact conflict discussions. Hopefully, either no hard events have occurred or they have but the couple has coped with them. Identifying the specific strengths and skills that empowered the couple’s coping abilities should be pointed out and underscored. Such coping strengths and skills can be applied to other issues or processes with which the couple is struggling.
Gridlock On Perpetual Issues
Research shows 69% of all problems couples have, including healthy couples, are perpetual problems. The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships is in how a couple processes these problems. If they are discussed with humor, positive affect, and acceptance, they don’t usually trouble the couple. However, if discussions of these issues lead to explosive fights, tense avoidance of the issues, or escalated quarrels, the issue is said to be “gridlocked.”
Discuss with both partners what issues they consider perpetual, if any, and track how they developed their dialogue to deal with these. Focus on how they discovered these differences and how they have assimilated them into their relationship. This will help in understanding their coping dynamics, such as whether they avoid discussing their perpetual issues, or agree to disagree, or compromise when necessary, and so on. The strengths they bring to these dialogues may be applicable to other areas of concern.
This is the “cherry on top” section which, while not strictly necessary for a successful relationship, can help bond and grow the relationship across the test of time.
Rituals of Connection
Do both partners feel satisfied with the Rituals of Connection in their relationship? These intentional times that the couple spends together helps them count on each other’s presence and can be a source of joy, fun, contemplation, and connection. Discovering what their rituals of connection are is a useful skill to learn about, as this can form important building blocks in their trust and friendship with one another.
Examples of rituals of connection include how they part in the morning and reunite at the end of the day as well as how they typically spend birthdays, anniversaries, and other holidays together with one another. Their ways of spending intentional time together can be helpful in understanding how they have fun together and move through time together. When other needs arise in the relationship, their rituals of connection may signal good times when unmet needs or concerns can be raised and discussed.
Roles in Life
Sharing similar definitions of life-roles helps contribute more meaning to the relationship. As the couple lives their roles day to day, their agreement on what makes a good partner, parent or family member will be useful when life confronts them with challenges. In these situations, their common understanding about what roles each partner must play in meeting those challenges will help them to triumph together as they face them.
Do both partners feel that their life goals are supported in this relationship? If so, most likely they have had conversations about their goals and dreams in which they felt listened to, understood, and respected. They may also have similar goals that create a shared vision for their future.
Reviewing with each other how you arrived at your goals and have supported each other’s goals. What values, personal history, and beliefs have informed these goals? The ways partners support each other in fulfilling goals is a strength in any relationship.
There are some universal symbols that are critical in any relationship. For example, the meaning of a home, the meaning of money, and the meaning of love. The way they view these symbols together is a strength that influences how connected they feel in their sense of shared life purpose. Learning more about how they each arrived at the meanings and importance they place on words like, home, money, love, sex, and affection can help to point out some valuable tools they may already have developed yet are unaware of. Family-of-origin histories, early adult experiences, and other influences may have led them to arrive at these meanings.
Individual Areas of Concern
These are the significant individual issues that each partner can bring to any relationship. These can significantly affect any relationship, not just the current one. Often, a referral to individual therapy is necessary when there are significant issues in these areas.
These issues typically include drug and alcohol abuse/dependence, suicidal thoughts, domestic violence and emotional abuse. Other common, individual areas include mental health concerns such as clinical depression, anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity, anger/hostility, and paranoid ideation.
Problems with the Gottman Method
Officially, the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy relies on a specific structure and approach. Which is interesting in that Dr. John Gottman is also a vocal advocate for making modifications and adaptations to his techniques as each therapist sees as appropriate.
Correlation vs. Causation
One of the main reservations that I have about Gottman Method Couples Therapy is that it is built upon correlational-based evidence, as opposed to cause-and-effect. In short, correlation does not imply causation.
For example, the number of ice cream cones sold in the U.S. is directly related to the amount of home burglaries. If more ice cream cones are sold in a given month, you can generally assume that the number of home thefts will also increase (correlational). However, this does not imply that the sale of ice cream causes home robberies (cause-and-effect). Why then is there a correlation? The answer is that there is a shared variable between these two events. During the summer, more ice cream is sold. Also, during the hot summer months, more people leave their windows and doors open, and as a result, more people can easily gain unauthorized access to one’s home.
Another example: In a small village in England, residents noticed that for every household that had a new baby, storks were found resting on the roof. Superstition aside, we have a correlation between the number of births and the number of storks appearing on rooftops. However, without additional research and evidence, we cannot say that there is a causation between the two variables; babies, after all, do not cause storks (nor the other way around). Again, a shared variable exists between these two scenarios: When a baby is born in the village, the house is kept warmer by placing more logs in the fireplace more frequently. Warmer homes equals warmer roofs. Storks, given the option to rest their tush on someplace cold versus warm will often choose the comfort.
For the Gottman Method, this doesn’t mean that we abandon our research. Instead, it means that we need to be very clear on what factors we tend to see in poor communication between couples versus what are good predictors of successful marriages. In its popularity, the Gottman Method has become somewhat larger than life (emphasis is often placed on the brand name itself rather than the specific techniques involved). However, it is a solid and well-founded theoretical framework that I have found to produce reliable and consistent results; we just must proceed carefully before drawing solid conclusions of a cause-and-effect nature.
The Gottman Method is also a Brand
Gottman Method Couples Therapy is not only a viable, solid therapeutic approach towards relationship recovery; it is also a brand. There are restrictions on how one can describe the therapy itself. Most marital partners recognize the name and actively seek it out for counseling. The problem occurs when the research is not consistent.
For example, assume that additional research finds that part of the Gottman approach is inaccurate. What will the owners do? Will they officially recall the training materials and rescind all financial revenue? Will they rebrand the method “version 2.0”? This is doubtful, and to be fair, somewhat unrealistic to expect.
Whether we like it or not, the findings of Gottman’s research are in demand and mainstream. Knowing this while practicing the techniques involved is what keeps us honest and helps maintain a clarity of focus.
Phases of Gottman Method Therapy
The structure involves a series of assessment phases, followed by treatment and then specific termination sessions phased out over a period of time. During different phases of therapy, the therapist works with the couples together to help them appreciate the relationship’s strengths and to gently navigate through its vulnerabilities.
- In the assessment phase of couple’s therapy, couples are given some homework and/or written materials to complete that will help the therapist better understand the couple’s relationship.
- Once the issues and goals for therapy have been identified, the real work of treatment can begin. Most of the work will involve sessions where both partners are seen together as a couple. However, there may be times where individual sessions are recommended. The therapist may also give exercises to practice between sessions.
- As the couples progress in their relationship, the couples will begin to phase out of therapy and meet less frequently. This allows the couple to test out their new relationship skills, to make sure that it is not too soon to stop, and if successful, to prepare for the termination of marital/relationship therapy.
- Although couples may terminate therapy whenever they wish, most find it to be helpful to have at least one session together to summarize progress, define the work that remains, and say good-bye. This termination session gives the couple a sense of closure and helps to remind them of their new skills and need for continuing to practice these skills. Finally, in order to prevent falling back into old habits, the couples arrange to meet with the therapist again after six months.