Every relationship runs into conflict: Sometimes we’re able to work through these conflicts quickly and effectively, but in some instances, we struggle to find that common ground. When conflicts are left unresolved, this can prove extremely stressful and have many negative effects on the relationship. External influences can also have a significant impact and lead to further conflict. Experiencing loss, significant life changes, moving homes, moving jobs, family struggles, and health problems are just a few of the strains that we face with our partners.
Maintaining a happy long-term relationship isn’t easy. Life throws many challenges in our path, and we naturally change our life course as we grow and age. Communication is vital to keep a relationship happy and healthy. However, if communication reduces or becomes hostile, it can lead to a cycle of problems in your relationship. When the going gets tough, and communication has broken down, sometimes it’s good to seek help from outside of the relationship.
It’s common to view couples therapy as a last resort, but the sooner you seek support, the better. The longer you wait, the harder it is to break bad relationship habits and the negative cycle of conflict. Lasting relationships require an investment from both partners, including energy, time, and commitment. Sometimes, a positive way to invest in your relationship is to get help from a counselor, and the Gottman method is a well-known, evidence-based approach that can prove to help you.
What Is the Gottman Method?
The Gottman method is a type of couples therapy that is backed by scientific research. Over several decades, Dr. John and Dr. Judy Gottman researched relationships, which led them to identify the elements it takes for relationships to thrive, regardless of life stages.
The approach involves a detailed assessment of a couple’s relationship. It applies researched-based interventions to help work through relationship problems. Tori-Lyn Mills, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor of Thriveworks Counseling in Columbia, MD, highlights why the Gottman method is different from other types of marriage counseling: “This method really puts the ball in the couples’ court; it allows them to work on fixing their relationship rather than relying on the therapist to do it. Especially since, as the therapist, I’m not the expert of their relationship, they are.” Researchers suggest that therapists pay particular attention to this couples therapy method with studies showing positive results on improving marital adjustment and couples’ intimacy.
No couple sets out to get divorced when they get married, and life throws a range of diverse challenges at us all. Dr. John Gottman’s research delves into identifying the most significant factors that lead to divorce. His study showed his ability to predict divorce with surprising accuracy.
Gottman’s Study on Divorce
Dr. John Gottman conducted a longitudinal study of 52 married couples, which concluded in 1992. During the research, he identified negative communication patterns and predicted divorce with a 93.6% accuracy.
During the research study, couples spent fifteen minutes trying to resolve a disagreement while being videotaped and analyzed by researchers. Dr. Gottman identified six key divorce predictors:
- Harsh Start-up. Statistics show that the first three minutes of interaction predicts the outcome of a conversation 96% of the time. So, if a conversation begins harshly with criticism or sarcasm, it is likely to end negatively. These negative beginnings to a conversation are known as a “harsh start-up.”
- The Four Horsemen. Four specific types of negativity—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, known as the four horsemen—were found to be detrimental to relationships.
- Flooding. Suppose your partner’s negativity is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. In that case, it can lead to an unhappy marriage and be detrimental to the relationship. This phenomenon is known as flooding.
- Body Language. Physical body changes happen to people when they face flooding, including hormonal changes, increased blood pressure, and an increase in heart rate. When these bodily changes occur, it becomes challenging to have a productive discussion.
- Failed Repair Attempts. When a couple tries to reduce the tension in a conversation, it is known as a repair attempt. If these attempts fail, it a sign of an unhappy future.
- Bad Memories. Couples who are happy in their marriage look back at the tough times fondly and proudly. They draw strength from the difficulties they have faced. Remembering things negatively and bringing up bad memories can be a predictor of a troubled relationship.
Mills describes the positive results achieved by using the Gottman method to address relationship issues. “The Gottman method focuses on communication, defensiveness, criticism, and the silent treatment. If couples can really grasp an understanding and work on these things, it can be very effective.” Now that it’s established Dr. Gottman is an expert in predicting divorce, how does the Gottman method work to address these predictors?
How Does the Gottman Method Work?
There are three main elements to the Gottman method:
- Assessment. The assessment process involves both joint and individual interviews with the couple. The couple then fills out questionnaires and receives feedback on their relationship.
- Framework. During a conversation between the couple and the therapist, they decide together on the sessions’ duration and frequency going forward.
- Intervention. The therapist designs interventions that focus on friendship, conflict management, and the creation of shared meaning to help a couple strengthen their relationship. With guidance, couples learn to use positive interactions to replace negative conflict patterns. Interventions are designed to achieve shared goals, deepen emotional connections, and improve friendship.
On discussing the Gottman method with Crystal Smith, Licensed Professional Counselor of Thriveworks in Sterling Heights, she explained some of the aspects she finds positive about the method. “The approach has many handouts that support the tools taught in session. It makes practicing new skills at home much more straightforward. I also love that the method has a screening section that allows the couple to really reflect on their own thoughts and feelings about the relationship. When the information from this section is gathered, the clinician can review it. Based on the research, the results guide treatment in a meaningful way.”
What Are the Goals and Principles of the Gottman Method?
There main goals of the Gottman method that the interventions strive to achieve are:
- Undo conflicting verbal communication.
- Increase intimacy, respect, and affection.
- Remove the barriers that create a feeling of stagnancy in conflicting situations.
- Create more empathy and understanding within the relationship.
As part of the Gottman method, Drs. John and Julie Gottman developed the Sound Relationship House Theory. It includes nine principles that are the foundation of a healthy relationship.
- Build Love Maps. Know each other’s worlds. Know your partner’s history, worries, stresses, hopes, and what makes them happy.
- Share Fondness and Admiration. By expressing appreciation and respect in a relationship, it helps to build fondness and admiration.
- Turn Towards Instead of Away. Tell your partner your needs and listen to theirs. Turn towards them and address them to help build the relationship.
- The Positive Perspective. A positive approach to problem-solving and the presence of successful repair attempts are key elements of a healthy relationship.
- Manage Conflict. Not all conflicts can be resolved, but they can be managed. It is natural to have conflicts within a relationship.
- Make Life Dreams Come True. Each half of the couple should feel safe to talk openly about their hopes, values, convictions, and aspirations.
- Create Shared Meaning. Connections occur when experiences are shared by helping your partner find meaning, sharing your history with them, and working through difficult times together.
- Trust. Trust is essential in any relationship. It is the confidence that your partner has your best interests at heart, not just their own.
- Commitment. Commitment is believing that your relationship with your partner is your lifelong journey, for better or for worse. You are committing to work on your relationship if it deteriorates.
Helping couples understand and achieve these goals and principles makes this type of couples therapy successful. Mills says, “The Gottman method makes me visualize holding the back of a bike that’s just had the training wheels removed. Once the couple gets a good momentum, I can let go so that they can move forward more independently.” The principles of the Gottman method help couples to build a deep and enduring friendship, which is the foundation of a happy and long-lasting relationship.
Why Choose the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy?
One of the Gottman methods’ essential elements is teaching couples to understand the difference between solvable and perpetual problems, and how to manage them. For example, four of the most typical marriage problems identified as solvable by Dr. Gottman are technology, work stress, money, and housework. A solvable problem is situational, and a solution can be adopted to resolve it.
Perpetual problems are present in every marriage. They are problems that derive from fundamental differences in personalities or lifestyle needs. These types of issues re-occur regularly. The key is to open a dialogue about them before they become uncomfortable and unmanageable. The Gottman method develops communication skills to manage conflict, which arises from both solvable and perpetual problems. “This method of couples counseling works well with couples who have ineffective or unhealthy communication patterns,” states Smith.
Despite the described benefits, Smith notes to exercise caution. “The Gottman method is excellent for most couples; however, it is not recommended if there is a pattern of physical domestic violence in the relationship.” In a relationship where one partner demonstrates controlling and dominating behavior through acts of physical violence, couples therapy is inappropriate. The best places to seek support in this situation is from a specialist, treatment center, hotline, shelter, or the police.
For those looking for couples therapy, the Gottman method teaches couples relationship skills proven effective based on more than 45 years of scientific research. Smith solidifies this point stating, “the approach is backed by research and has predictable positive outcomes.” Upon completing the therapy sessions, couples will leave with many tools to address future challenges so that the changes are long-lasting.
Brittle Z. V is for Violence. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/v-is-for-violence/. Published 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.
Davoodvandi M, Navabi Nejad S, Farzad V. Examining the Effectiveness of Gottman Couple Therapy on Improving Marital Adjustment and Couples’ Intimacy. Iran J Psychiatry. 2018;13(2):135-141.
Gottman J. The 6 Things That Predict Divorce. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-6-things-that-predict-divorce/. Published 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.
Gottman J, Levenson R. The Timing of Divorce: Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce Over a 14-Year Period. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2000;62(3):737-745. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00737.x
The Gottman Method – About | The Gottman Institute. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method/. Published 2020. Accessed September 23, 2020.