Meaningful change often occurs in a relatively short amount of time using the Gottman tools.
A long-term relationship is like a work of art — it requires vision, perseverance, and commitment. Even the closest couples find themselves stuck at times in a kind of gridlock, where certain issues arise again and again. I have found that change is possible, even in a long-term relationship with these established patterns of conflict. Attachment theory provides a lens through which to understand gridlock. When emotional injuries from childhood, or from the relationship itself, are understood in this way, it leads to empathy–for oneself and for one’s partner. Couples therapy helps partners to understand the needs and issues that underlie gridlock, and find ways to talk to each other that leave both partners feeling safe and understood. Even when the issue remains unresolved, the dialogue itself can lead to feeling closer.
The Gottman Method is a practical approach that helps couples strengthen their friendship, repair after a fight, and compromise without giving up core needs.
The Gottman Method
The Gottman Institute was created by John and Julie Gottman to provide Couples Workshops, Professional Training Programs, and ongoing research on what holds couples together. Some of the questions John Gottman explored in his extensive research have been:
The results of his research show that we can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will stay married, and among those who stay married, which couples will be happy. The research also shows that couples can change a trajectory for the better and alter the course of their relationship.
Gottman workshops and therapy utilize this research to help couples strengthen their relationships. The Method provides a constructive guide for accomplishing three goals:
The Great Relational Paradox
People can only change if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted for who they are. This paradox is at the heart of the Gottman Method. Basic to all effective problem solving is communicating acceptance of who your partner is as a person, even while asking your partner to change certain behaviors or patterns. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated, they often shut down or “dig in” to protect their sense of self from attack. How can we communicate to our partner that we love and accept him or her, while still asking for change? By learning to recognize the Four Horsemen once they appear. When couples dialogue without Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness or Stonewalling, each partner feels safer, more deeply understood, and fundamentally accepted.
The Four Horseman
Are all negative moments corrosive in relationships? Research tells us there are four ways of interacting that are predictors of divorce. John Gottman calls them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and couples learn to replace them with their antidotes (referenced below).
In the way we’re using it here, criticism is when you address a complaint as a problem with your partner’s character or personality. For example, “You are so selfish.” The antidote to criticism is using a gentle start up.
This is an attempt to protect oneself, to defend one’s innocence, to ward off a perceived attack. Though it is a natural response to feeling unsafe, it perpetuates escalated cycles of conflict. The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility for at least part of the problem.
To be contemptuous is to put someone down, for instance by taking higher moral ground. It can be expressed as a critical statement, or as a simple eye-roll when you feel superior to your partner. Contempt is our single best predictor of divorce or break-up. The antidote to contempt is to describe your own feelings and needs, which creates good will and appreciation in the relationship.
Stonewalling typically arises from physiological flooding, which is what happens when the nervous system is overwhelmed and we go into fight, flight or freeze (survival mode). Stonewalling, then, is a form of flight in which the listener withdraws from the interaction, either literally or while remaining in the room. He or she may stop responding, avoid eye contact, or look physically uncomfortable. Sometimes removing oneself can seem like a way of protecting the relationship from further escalation. The problem is, when one partner leaves the interaction, the other partner feels abandoned or punished. The antidote, then, to stonewalling is physiological self-soothing, and for the couple to learn ways to make such interactions feel safer for one another in order to stay connected.
The small moments of everyday life are the building blocks of relationships. A partner has the opportunity to turn toward, turn away, or turn against a bid their partner makes for connection or repair. A bid is a gesture — verbal or nonverbal — for some sort of positive connection. To strengthen Turn Towards, partners learn to state their needs and become aware of their partner’s bids and turn towards them. Research tells us that the quality of a relationship tends to reflect the quality of the couple’s Turning Towards. Responding to one another’s bids is also an excellent way to build resilience in a relationship.
The foundation of a strong relationship is based on how well partners know one another — their worries, stresses, joys, and dreams. Sometimes, in the midst of daily living, with all its stressors and requirements, we forget to show interest in one another’s inner worlds. To strengthen Love maps, we encourage partners to ask open-ended questions that lead to a deeper knowledge of their inner lives. Showing interest in your partner and experiencing your partner’s interest in you, increases empathy, strengthens friendship, and builds intimacy.
Accepting Influence is about mutual respect, a state in which both partners feel their points of view, their thoughts, their minds, are of interest to one another. When one person feels he or she has no voice in the relationship, closeness dwindles. Listening to your partner, showing interest in his or her interests, and turning towards bids for connection are all ways of accepting influence.
Research shows that for couples who eventually break up, there is slightly more negativity than positivity during disagreements (1.25 times more negative than positive), as compared to couples who stay together. For couples in stable, happy relationships — partners who reported liking one another — the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1. (Positivity is expressed five times more frequently than negativity when discussing an area of disagreement.) Even when talking about an area of continuing disagreement, their relationships demonstrated a climate of affection, humor and interest in one another.
emotional bank account
The Emotional Bank Account is the level of good will built up between partners. Like a savings account, there will be deposits and withdrawals. When there’s enough good will in that account, the relationship is better able to withstand conflicts and temporary emotional distance.
Mistakes, mis-attunements, and conflicts are inevitable. None of us is perfect, and there will be times when one or both partners revert to the Four Horsemen. But couples can learn to repair. According to John Gottman’s research, the key to relationship success is the quality of the repair during and after a fight. Learning how to effectively repair a regrettable incident is one of the key tools that couples learn with the Gottman Method. What predicts whether or not a Repair will be effective? A flourishing Emotional Bank Account.
How you talk about an issue is what matters. How you speak, how you listen, how you treat one another. When partners can learn to speak so their partner feels safe to listen, and when the listener is truly listening rather than mentally building a defense, both partners feel more positive and hopeful during the discussion, and in the relationship overall.
Marathon Couples Therapy
A Marathon session typically lasts for 3 – 5 hours. Some couples come in once for a Marathon session, some come in for a series of such sessions. Some couples travel long distances and prefer an intensive experience of multi-hour sessions over the course of a day or weekend. The Gottman Method is well suited for this type of work. The Method’s specific exercises gives the couple a chance to practice tools that break through old patterns and establish new ones.
Attachment theory tells us that the most significant relationship problems will be about the security of the bond between partners, and their struggle to define the relationship as a safe haven and a secure base. John Bowlby, in his seminal research begun in 1959, defined a secure attachment bond as an affectionate, reciprocal relationship in which both partners derive and provide comfort and security. He believed that the human need for bonding and attachment is a primary biological drive that accompanies us from infancy into old age. Just as parents are a child’s primary attachment figures, partners in romantic relationships become the primary attachment figure for each other.
A Safe Haven
A safe haven is a person who provides a sense of safety and comfort. All of us yearn for such a relationship, a person we count on to have our back, to sympathize when we hurt, whose eyes reflect back to us compassion and understanding. Sometimes couples lose the knack of providing a safe haven for one another, or find it hard to give because of hurt and angry feelings, but it’s never too late to learn how to be that safe haven for another.
The Secure Base
In childhood, a “Secure Base” evolves out of a relationship with responsive attachment figures (usually, one’s parents, but sometimes a grandparent or other adult caregiver) who meet the child’s needs and to whom the child can turn as a safe haven when upset or anxious. When children develop trust in the availability and reliability of this relationship, anxiety is reduced and they can then explore and enjoy their world, safe in the knowledge they can return to their secure base if needed. Adults also need a secure base. These attachment relationships serve the same function for adults as they do for children, and an awareness of this need helps partners to focus on providing a secure base for one another.
“All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” (John Bowlby, 1988)
Attachment Theory views dependency needs as a primary human need for a secure emotional connection with those closest to us. Such needs are natural and healthy. The goal is to express them effectively, which leads to autonomous individuals and close relationships.
Internal Working Models
Internal working models of attachment are a result of countless interactions between children and their caregivers. As adults, we don’t question the impact of those interactions because they have become internalized, a lens through which we view ourselves, others, and relationships. When couples understand how such internal working models influence their present-day interactions, these interactions — even gridlocked ones — begin to change.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT)
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy was developed by Sue Johnson and Leslie Greenberg in the early 1980’s. They called their approach “emotionally focused” to emphasize the role of emotion in patterns of interactions in close relationships. Sue Johnson went on to further develop a process for healing distressed relationships and addressing adult love and attachment. EFT recognizes that relationship distress results from a perceived threat to basic adult needs for safety, security, and closeness. The therapy focuses on helping partners restructure emotional responses that maintain negative patterns. The goal is to move from conflict gridlock to new bonding interactions. As with the Gottman Method, there is a now a large body of research on the effectiveness of EFT, showing stable results over time.
Mindfulness practice has become as mainstream as yoga. It’s being studied for its effects on mental health, quality of life, stress, anxiety, depression, pain inflammation, immune response, and insomnia. How does it relate to couples? Well, when fighting escalates, it’s often because one or both partners is flooded (diffuse physiological arousal, or DPA). Learning how to calm one’s nervous system, stop ruminating on grievances, and become present enough to really listen, leads to a sense of stability, security, and greater positivity over all.
In couple’s therapy, I recommend Mindfulness Practice when one or both partners becomes flooded, or struggles with anxiety, depression, or ruminating thoughts. It’s especially helpful when past trauma is triggered during a conflict discussion.
The practice itself is simple: It involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breath, then bringing your attention to the present. Your mind will naturally drift to various concerns, but you practice bringing it back, again and again, to the present moment.