There are a lot of different methods and theories of couples therapy. One of the best ones for treating couples, is the Gottman method. John Gottman, PhD and his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD have been studying couples’ behavior in Washington State, teaching clinical and direct workshops for therapists and clients, writing books, and providing couples’ therapy for over 40 years. They are internationally recognized for their contributions to what can be a very tricky area for therapists and clients. If you want to know more about them or the Gottman Institute, please check out https://www.gottman.com/.
The Gottman Method
Since becoming a Gottman Certified Educator in 2015, I have been running workshops and working with couples using their methods (as well as all of my other clinical experience). This method takes you beyond active listening and conflict resolution to focus on friendship, respect, and acceptance that not all problems can be solved – but they can be managed.
This is a very difficult thing for a lot of people to process – that problems need to be managed and compromised on, that they cannot always be solved. And it is just one of the seven principles of a “Sound Relationship House” that form the core of their treatment philosophy.
Why Couples Come to Therapy
Couples come to therapy for a myriad of reasons. It is a difficult and stressful thing to do – to recognize that your relationship needs work and that you cannot solve all of the problems in your relationship between the two of you.
Some couples come because they don’t really interact with each other anymore – maybe they are empty nesters, maybe they have had family crisis(es) that leave them having to put out fires all the time instead of nurturing their relationship. Whatever the case, a lot of couples who come into my office do not know each other very well anymore – sometimes after only a few years of marriage! It takes energy to keep up with people – in our busy lives, we all know how difficult it is to keep in touch with friends and relatives – but you also need to keep up with your spouse, your partner, the person who you (hopefully) have some downtime with.
“Love maps” are the Gottman method’s way of getting to know each other again – drawing a map of what makes your significant other tick and keeping up with it as it changes. I also like Table Topics to generate discussions in couples or families.
Couples also come to therapy when there has been infidelity. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but infidelity (emotional or physical) is the opposite of “Turning Towards” your relationship. When one partner is unfaithful, they have turned away from their partner and towards someone else. A “sound relationship” is one where each party can rely on and trust the other. That means that if one person is struggling with something, they turn to the other for support, guidance, opinions, or a port in their storm.
If you love, respect, and admire someone and you have a disagreement, you try to see their side and validate their point of view even when you don’t agree. You do not give in (which will just cause resentment), you do not turn away, and you do not blame the other person. Forgiveness is an aspect of “fondness and admiration” as well as “turning towards” and the “positive perspective.” You do not always have to forgive, but if you want to stay in a relationship after infidelity, you both have to forgive each other for whatever transgressions have brought you to that point.
Another reason couples come to therapy is that they argue all the time – I call it “kitchen sink” arguing when you start arguing about one thing (usually something minor in the scheme of things) and end up throwing all your other resentments, hurts, problems, and unhappiness into the argument. There is no way to win that kind of argument. You know that you are there when you do one of the “Four Horseman” of relationships. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (see left). Whenever you get to the point of complaining about unrelated things, arguing about semantics, name calling or just not talking at all, you have done one of these.
There are a lot of other behaviors that you do with each of these, but it is important that every time you do one, you have to do at least five positive things to counter the damage to the relationship. With contempt, it is 20 to 1! Relationships cannot survive constant arguments like this. There are a lot of things – Gottman calls them “repair attempts” – that you can do to try to fix it, but it is MUCH easier not to do these in the first place. No one wins in these situations.
The average couple comes to counseling six years after the problem begins in their relationship – that is a lot of negativity to counter. There is no quick fix or shortcut to building a healthy relationship. Everyone argues, everyone disagrees, and everyone has to figure out the best way to manage their relationship. It is a puzzle that requires both partners be interested in change. It requires that both people be willing to learn and grow to make a relationship healthy. There is no shortcut to learning to listen, argue well, compromise, and value each other. But sometimes, there is help along the way.
Kendra Wilson, LCSW, CEDS
Kendra is a Gottman Certified Educator and teaches Couples Enrichment Seminars at Chrysalis Center periodically. If you are interested in attending a seminar, please email Chrysalis and we will let you know when the next set of seminars will be scheduled.