Approaches to Couples Counseling: The Gottman Method

by | Nov 29, 2020 | Couples Therapy | 0 comments

Gottman Method Couples Counseling is one of the most popular and contemporary approaches to couples counseling used by couples therapists today. What makes it so unique in the therapeutic landscape is that it is entirely based on research findings from couples researcher John Gottman’s own studies of married couples.

A Research-Based Approach to Couples Counseling:

John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher who has spent more than 40 years researching couples. Based on his research, he claims to be able to predict which married couples will divorce and which will stay married with 90 % accuracy.

One of the innovations of Gottman’s approach to research was that he observed how couples interacted in a live-in environment just like in the show Big Brother. Through the multiple cameras installed, he was able to see how couples interacted naturally. By studying hundreds of couples this way, he was able to distinguish certain differences in the behaviors of the couples who have successful marriages and the couples who end up getting divorced or separated.

Based on his research Gottman has constructed a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in, which today has become known as “The Sound Relationship House”

The Sound Relationship House:

John Gottman's Sound Relationship HouseThe Sound Relationship House contains all the elements found to predict relationship success in what is now called the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling.

First we have the pillars of the relationship: Trust and Commitment. These are fundamental to creating the boundaries for there to even be a relationship. They involve being faithful to each other and developing the trust needed to be emotionally vulnerable. According to Gottman, without these pillars in place, you cannot build a sound relationship.

Once the boundaries of the relationship have been established, couples can begin to focus on creating a house in which they want to live.

The Friendship System:

The foundation of a good relationship is what Gottman Method Couples Counselors refer to as “the Friendship System”. The friendship system contains all the elements that make a marriage worthwhile.

One of the building blocks of the friendship system is what Gottman calls “Building Love Maps”. The goal here is for couples to develop a clear and accurate knowledge of what makes each other tick. You have to allocate “room” in you brain for the other person and to truly know who they are. You have to have a “map” of your partner’s world, otherwise, who are you really in a relationship with, but yourself?

In the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, couples are also advised to build each other up through creating a culture of openly sharing their “fondness and admiration” for each other. Getting in the habit of sharing positive thoughts and feelings rather than withholding them is often a very simple thing do, and can help build a stronger sense of connection that will help partners weather storms much better, since each partner feels appreciated and loved.

An interesting novelty of Gottman’s research is the idea of “turning towards”, which denotes all the little micro interactions we engage in when we drop what we are doing to respond to something our partner is interested in. They are little moments of connection that seem minor and insignificant, but start to wane when couples grow distant or begin to not like each other much.

Finally, Gottman advocates that partners find ways to laugh at disagreements, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and otherwise adopt a positive and lighthearted perspective. The opposite of “adopting a positive perspective” is what Gottman calls “negative sentiment override” where everything your partner says or does is interpreted through a lens of past hurt and wrong-doings. In this mode of operating, you are often searching for the negative intention in what your partner is saying, and are inclined to choose the worst possible interpretation of their actions.

Together these four elements create a strong friendship filled with love, affection, and intimacy.

Only when couples have a strong friendship as their base is there enough love in the “love tank” to make them endure the more difficult times and the many disagreements in values and preferences that are bound to happen over time.

Managing Conflict and Fulfilling Dreams:

The upper elements of the sound relationship house include conflict management skills, as well as the creation of shared meaning and helping each other fulfill your dreams.

“Conflict management” is about learning to communicate with your partner in ways that do not make them defensive, and yet makes you feel heard. This often entails suspending your desire to heard so you can hear what your partner is saying from their perspective and taking turns to be the listener and the talker.

“Making Life Dreams Come True” is about creating dialogue around each partner’s dreams and growth ambitions, so that each person feels that they have a voice in the relationship and feels that their dreams for the future are not being trampled upon or silenced in the name of getting along.

As the Gottmans write: “The bottom line is this: You don’t want to have the kind of relationship in which you win and are influential in the relationship but wind up crushing your partner’s dream. You want the kind of relationship in which each of you support one another’s dreams”.

“Creating shared meaning”, refers to creating rituals within the relationship and establishing an agreed upon culture that defines shared practices that make both partners feel connected. This could involve the agreed upon routine of having family dinners together, of praying together, or of never going to bed angry with each other.

How Can Gottman Method Couples Counseling Help You and Your Partner?

The Gottman Method of Couples Counseling is about teaching couples the skills needed to build their own sound relationship house. The assumption is that all couples can learn to emulate the practices that successful couples engage in and can build new habits to replace old ones that have not been working.

The Gottman Method is a skills-based approach to creating a strong relationship. By doing more of the right things, and doing less of the relationship-damaging things, you can make your relationship grow in the direction of greater intimacy and satisfaction.

Does the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling Work?

Learning some of the skills of successful couples communication and friendship building can be immensely useful to couples who are struggling to get their needs met when they simply use their automatic gut reactions.

Being more intentional about how to have conversations by learning more skillful ways to approach your partner can definitely lead to significant improvements in the overall happiness in a relationship.

One of the limitations of the Gottman Method is that it works more from the outside-in than from the inside-out. In other words, the approach is about changing your relationship by adopting a set of rules for how to interact. At first these rules can seem unnatural or forced since they are being imposed from without rather than emerging from within.

In my own couples therapy practice I therefore believe in combining multiple approaches to couples counseling. Although I have training in the Gottman Method and frequently teach my clients new skills, I also have a sound understanding of other more emotion-focused approaches that work from the inside out.

In my opinion, couples need more than skills to succeed in their relationships. They also need a deeper understanding of their own needs and desires, and an emotional experience of greater closeness with their partner.

More Couples Therapy Resources:

If you would like to learn some of the techniques utilized by couples therapists to help couples build happier relationships, sign up for my free e-book: The Secrets of Happy Couples (click on image):

The Secrets of Happy Couples Relationship Guide

Dr. Rune Moelbak psychologist houston texasAbout Me: I am a psychologist and ICEEFT certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. I have received training in the Gottman Method as well as emotionally focused couples therapy. 

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