Couples counseling is similar in a lot of ways to individual counseling. The couple involved will look at their behavior and emotions, what drives these behaviors and emotions, what the issues are, and what goals they have.
And like individual therapy, couples counseling is done through a few different modalities, or methods. The Gottman Method is considered the gold standard of couples therapy, having been utilized for decades.
At Inner Balance, we use the Gottman Method and emotionally-focused therapy to guide our clients toward happy, functional relationships.
In this guide, we’ll discuss:
The history of the Gottman Method
What kind of couples are good candidates for the Gottman Method
The core tenets of the Gottman Method
What to expect during couples counseling
Let’s get into why this method of couples counseling has been so successful for so long.
History of the Gottman Method
The Gottman Method was developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman. In the 70s, Dr. John Gottman began studying the patterns of couples’ interactions and behaviors. He noticed patterns that showed over and over in a multitude of couples. These patterns were measured in terms of positive and negative interactions.
Dr. Gottman partnered with Dr. Robert Levenson, and together, they studied the negative interactions of married couples. With 90% accuracy, Gottman and Levenson could predict whether a married couple would get divorced.
The Development of the Sound House Theory
In 1994, Gottman began research with his wife Dr. Julie Gottman. Their studies and experiments showed that conflict was easier resolved when the couples took breaks to calm down and remove themselves from the argument. They were then able to have more positive interactions that aided in resolving conflicts.
From there, they were able to discern the positive interaction patterns. Nearly every couple was able to improve their relationship by focusing on certain principles and positive interactions.
The Gottmans then turned these principles into the Sound House Relationship Theory, which is the core of the Gottman Method.
The Sound House Relationship Theory
The Gottman Method organizes a relationship like a house—you need sturdy walls to protect the precious things inside.
The load-bearing framework of the house is trust and commitment. Without these, the house will crumble.
The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work
Each of these principles acts as a different floor of the house. And like normal home construction, you need a strong foundation to keep building. Each couple going through Gottman couples therapy builds the next floor off of the one before.
Build Love Maps
Love maps are the maps to each person in the relationship. It’s knowledge of their inner workings, both superficial and secretive or deep. Each partner needs to know things about the other person like their favorite color, their favorite movie, their childhood pet, how they like to be comforted when sick, or what they fear.
Express Fondness and Admiration
Now that the couple has laid out what they know about each other, it’s time to vocalize what they like about each other. What attracted them to each other? The couple should think about their qualities as a person, such as humor, sensibility, or kindness.
Turn Towards Each Other
In a time of need, couples should be able to rely on each other. Whether they need reassurance, a hug, or someone to reach the top shelf, that person in the relationship should be able to put in a “bid” to get a response from the other person. In turn, each person should be open to helping compassionately or listening to the other person’s needs.
When conflict arises, it’s easy to pass the blame and see the worst in someone. Effectively resolving issues means shifting mindsets to something positive. Each person needs to give their partner the benefit of the doubt. They can view each issue as an opportunity.
One common phrase in couples counseling is “it’s not you versus me, it’s us versus the problem.” This floor of the house will help couples shift their perspective on the issues.
These positive perspectives will help build the next floor of the house, which is managing conflict. No one can avoid it, so learning how to manage it is key.
A lot of this comes from a shift to positive perspectives. However, there is an element of respecting how your partner reacts to and handles conflict. Couples will learn collaboration to manage conflict during this step.
Make Life Dreams Come True
As couples shift back towards fostering the good that already exists in the relationships, they’ll work together to achieve their life goals—not just supporting the goals of the individuals, but working to achieve their collective goals as a couple. This could be saving money to travel for a second honeymoon, or having kids.
Create Shared Meaning
The final floor of a solid relationship is to truly nurture that partnership. This completes the circle of what defines the couple. This can be big events such as changing names after marriage. Or it could be small steps like wearing matching pajamas on Christmas.
This floor is an amalgamation of behaviors and rituals, but they all add up to creating a life as a unit.
While the Gottmans found these principles lead to happier, lasting relationships, they also found very specific negative interactions that almost universally predict divorce.
1. Harsh Startup
First impressions matter, even in short interactions with your partner. According to the Gottman Institute, you can predict the outcome of a conversation within the first three minutes. If a conversation starts harshly or negatively, it guarantees that what follows will be unproductive.
How we sit, how we cross our arms, or if we hang our heads when listening to someone are all subconscious indicators of our emotions. This is what people usually mean when they talk about body language.
In the case of Gottman’s divorce predictors, body language refers more to physical reactions to flooding. Flooding can cause a person’s heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure to increase. Once a person has these trauma responses during a conflict, the conversation will end negatively.
4. Failed Repairs
In a conversation about conflict, one or both people in the relationship may make a repair attempt to de-escalate or reduce tension. If repairs consistently fail, it’s highly unlikely that conflict will ever get resolved. Relationships that don’t have successful repair attempts will likely fail.
5. Bad Memories
This predictor draws back to the positive perspective floor of the sound house theory. Happy couples not only look back at their history fondly, they view conflicts as proof of their commitment and are proud of their strength to work through them as a team. Unhappy couples focus on these conflicts as bad times to be ashamed of.
6. The Four Horsemen of Failed Relationships
Negative patterns of communication can become habits. These bad communication habits are so detrimental to meaningful and productive conversations that Gottman dubbed them the four horsemen of failed relationships.
These negative communication patterns “ride into marriages” in a specific order:
If these are unable to be fixed and replaced, the relationship is likely doomed.
The Four Areas of a Relationship The Gottman Method Aims to Improve
According to the Gottman Institute, 69% of marriage conflicts are perpetual and never resolved. Leaving these conflicts unresolved and “pushed under the rug” leads to negative interaction patterns.
Friendship and intimacy
Deeper emotional connections
The goal of couples therapy with the Gottman Method is for couples to have five positive interactions to every negative one. This is a huge predictor of successful healthy relationships. When a couple follows this pattern, each of those four areas is drastically improved.
The Gottman Method follows a similar order of events as many types of therapy. The counselor will analyze what is happening in the relationship, create a plan, then execute it.
In this phase, the counselor will have several conversations with the couple, together and individually. This way they can see what the perceived issues are from all angles. From there, the counselor will assess what the couple should work on.
This is where the couple and counselor will decide how often to meet and what the therapy plan is. This is generally where the first round of “homework” gets assigned to the couple.
Intervention and Activity
The intervention is the actual counseling. The couple will learn how to replace negative interactions with positive ones. They’ll foster trust and commitment by building positive communication patterns.
What Couples Are Good Candidates for the Gottman Method?
The Gottman Method is built around communication and interaction patterns. While every couple could benefit from the Gottman Method, it’s aimed at helping couples with communication issues. This looks differently for every couple, including those with frequent arguments, emotional distance, and perpetual problems.
It’s also applied in the case of specific issues that can stem from emotional walls or other conflicts, like parenting problems or infidelity.
It Can Benefit Couples in All Stages of the Relationship
The Gottman Method has been proven to help heterosexual couples and LGBTQIA+ couples. It’s also been proven to help couples in all stages of a relationship.
Those in the early stages can use couples counseling to get started on the right foot
Those without excessive conflict can get counseling to ensure the relationship remains healthy
Those on the brink of a divorce or split can resolve building issues with techniques of the Gottman Method
Like individual therapy, the intervention stage of counseling is tailored to the couple and their needs. That’s the reason that it can be implemented in so many scenarios.
How Inner Balance Counseling Uses the Gottman Method
Engaging in a romantic relationship adds another layer of personal accountability, simply because your behavior affects someone else more so than before. With the Gottman Method, everyone can feel free to express themselves while keeping everyone in the relationship emotionally safe.
It’s just one method used to help couples at Inner Balance Counseling. We believe in fostering safe environments for everyone to be their most authentic, happiest selves. Our experience shows the Gottman Method is one of the most effective ways to achieve this in couples counseling.