What Is Gottman Therapy And How Does It Help Couples?
By Nate Miller
Updated September 11, 2019
Every couple has problems. Young or old, long-term or short-term, issues and conflict are going to arise. This does not mean that you can't work through the problems. Strife is not a clear sign that you should not be together. What matters is how you learn to work through these issues, how well you maintain your connection despite those difficulties, and how well you focus on moving forward that makes your relationship strong.
These and other concepts are at the core of the Gottman Method for couple's therapy. A compassionate approach to human relations coupled with rigorous scientific data, the Gottman Method is focused on helping couples understand and navigate areas of conflict. With concepts like a healthy ratio of conflict to good times, a theory around a relationship as a house, and clear warning signs to watch out for, this method has been praised for its accuracy and wisdom.
In this article we'll learn more about where the Gottman Method came from, what it is, and how it helps couple's grow healthier relationships.
John Gottman, Relationship Scientist
In the 1980s John Gottman had been working as a couple's counselor. He believed there was a better way to understand the issues couples were struggling with and the best way to respond to them. He thought this could be based around a more comprehensive model of what a healthy relationship was. He also believed that this could help identify warning signs that would strain a relationship. He wanted all of these ideas to be backed by thorough research and analysis.
Over several years he executed research to gather the relevant data and ideas. He interviewed dozens of couples and developed a system for assessing each partner's perception of how the relationship worked. Through individual and paired sessions, he would observe how they interacted and the verbal and nonverbal ways they communicated their attitudes towards each other. He developed an eye for seeing which kinds of conflicts were surface level, and which were deeper issues.
He was very meticulous in his approach. One of his greatest efforts was the living space he created for couples to play out a day in their life. He would have couples stay in an apartment he had rented where they would agree to be observed for a day. While they stayed there, he gathered heaps of observations, as well as biological data (e.g. blood tests, heart rate) to get a fuller picture.
After years of work, Gottman processed all of his information and, after published journals and more interviews with couples, created the beginning of what is now the Gottman Method.
Love Is A house
The core idea of the Gottman Method is that every relationship is a house. The two framing pillars are trust and commitment, and the seven components within are the following.
- You have shared understandings of who you are to each other, a better understanding of the other's perspective on things and why it is that way. You have some sense of what the other needs, and a shared sense of history.
- You have created an atmosphere where you can have conversations about your dreams and where you feel safe sharing your life dreams with each other. You feel ready to tackle one another's life dreams together, and you understand each other's history that has led them to those dreams.
- Your partner has some say in how things work, and you do to. You have some influence over their decisions and how they move in the world, and they do to. Accepting and maintaining mutual influence rather than constantly insisting on your way is crucial to avoiding power struggles
- You are able to have a dialogue about the problems you know, solve problems that are solvable, and accept the ones that will be perpetual
- You practice self-soothing
- Accept your partners influence
- Positive perspective
- Overall, you focus on what you can do, and believe that no matter how hard it gets you are going to solve these problems together.
- You are able to state your needs to one another, actually hear each other, and work through points of conflict, need, or understanding together. This component is all about acknowledging that little moments make up life, and you can't turn away even over the small stuff.
- You have established a baseline level of affection for one another. This is also a place where a troubled relationship can immediately start taking action with small gestures of appreciation and respect to start improving the environment.
- You understand one another's worlds, what affection means, the best ways to express it, and how to be there positively.
This can seem like a lot, but the Gottman Method is actually fairly natural to execute. Rather than a system of worksheets and disciplines, the Gottman Method is all about finding simple ways that couples can rediscover their love for one another and avoid becoming bogged down in the negative moments.
How To Balance The Good With The Bad
Fights play out in different ways for every couple. Some couples have explosive blowouts over every issue. Others stifle their feelings and avoid talking about anything even remotely confrontational. Most are somewhere in between. But all couples experience a great deal of stress and unhappiness around their conflicts. It is not uncommon for it to feel like the bad moments continue to grow in number and intensity.
The Gottman Method understands that human beings have a tendency to focus on the negative. We can receive a hundred compliments and spend all night thinking about the one person who said something bad about us. This is just as true in relationships. We can have weeks of good days, but one bad fight can ruin all that goodwill.
Gottman created a ratio you can use to determine if your relationship is moving along or heading for trouble. He calculated that for every negative interaction, you should have at least five positive interactions, for a ratio of 5:1. These did not have to be strong negative or positive experiences. A moment where you have a heated conversation can be balanced out by spending time together, holding hands, or just saying I love you. What matters is that the expression of appreciation is heard and received.
Beyond this ratio for measuring a relationship's status, the Gottman Method is focused on shifting the perspective on the problems a relationship has.
Finding A New Way To View Your Painful Moments
As you can see from the principles of the Gottman Method, there is a strong emphasis on shared understanding. Strong relationships are formed by people who know where each other are, what makes each other tick, and where they can trust that they are there for each other. Strain emerges in relationships when distance starts to emerge between the people in it. Barriers start to emerge that make it harder to communicate. Empathy for one another becomes harder as a couple drifts apart. This situation can quickly spiral downward.
The Gottman Method is designed to disarm painful verbal communication. It gives couples tools for finding small moments to reinforce their affection. It intentionally breaks down barriers that make couples feel like they are stuck in negative loops. When things are going wrong, it's easy to believe that they are wrong because the relationship is wrong. The Gottman Method helps people understand that all couples fight, and that a healthy relationship is one where you understand the fights you are having and how to navigate them.
The final idea here is about perpetual vs passing problems. Surprisingly, according to Gottman, 69% of the problems couples face are perpetual problems. But having a problem that never goes away is normal. Couples learn that success means accepting you won't solve every problem you have, but you will learn to handle them.
The Four Horsemen
In addition to being focused on finding positive connections and reinforcing them, there is a system for spotting warning signs. For Gottman, these were called the four horsemen because they signaled a relationship that was headed for serious trouble. While the seriousness of each one depends on the degree to which it appears, it's always worth keeping an eye out for them.
- Criticism of the partner's personality: It's okay to be upset with things your partner does, but when you start getting mad about who they are, it's very stressful.
- Defensiveness: A corollary to the idea that healthy couples learn to navigate life together. When we start feeling unsafe, even attacked, in our relationships, it's a serious issue.
- Stonewalling: A complete breakdown of communication, this can be a place that's hard to move out of without some outside support.
- Contempt: This is the most dangerous according to Gottman. If contempt has started to appear between two people, it can be extremely difficult to bridge that gap.
The Gottman Method Is Universal
The Gottman Method is designed to work for anyone. The issues raised and the tools used to support the relationship have been applied for couples at every stage of life, rich or poor. As long as the participants are looking to reconnect and are ready to be vulnerable, good work can be done.
Even more, the Gottman Method does not require that your relationship be in dire straits. Many couples do not consider couple's therapy until they are experiencing serious problems. The Gottman Method is based on improving the fundamental building blocks of any relationship. If you learn to care for aspects like openness and affection before they have degraded, you stand a better chance of avoiding difficult times altogether.
The Gottman Method Can Lead You To New Happiness
Stress resulting from relationship problems is one of the most unpleasant experiences for anyone. It can damage our interactions at work, with friends, and make our own minds unhappy places. In situations like this, it can feel impossible to change the story, and it can make you question where all the good times went.
With the Gottman Method, there is a way to see that the good times may have lessened, but the seed of your affection is likely still there, just waiting to be nurtured. By tending to the components of a healthy house, flipping the script on how you view negative interactions, and using minor interventions to foster a safe space for one another, it is possible to reverse a downward trend.
The Gottman Method is powerful, and every couple would benefit from knowing the concepts therein. However, getting the full benefit and understanding how the ideas should be applied in your particular instance would greatly benefit from professional support. The experts at ReGain are always ready to help you start down the path of improving your relationship.
All couples fight. Conflict does not mean you cannot be together. By learning to move through your problems rather than live in them, and by focusing on what brings you closer, pain and stress can be overcome.