Couples therapy is a generic term that refers to counseling techniques used to help people in committed relationships resolve conflict, improve communication, and enhance the functioning of the relationship.
One specific form of couples therapy that is particularly popular is the Gottman method, which can help people to improve the health of their marriage or romantic partnership.
Read on to learn about the Gottman approach, including its goals and core principles, as well as what you can expect from the assessment and treatment process with Gottman counselors.
What is the Gottman Method of couples therapy?
The Gottman Method of couples therapy was developed by Dr. John Gottman, who spent 40 years researching his methods with couples to determine the most effective ways to help couples improve their relationships.
The Gottman Method of couples counseling begins with a thorough assessment of the health of a relationship and then proceeds to offer evidence-based strategies to help couples address the issues in the relationship.
While a Gottman therapist and a couple will decide together how often the couple will meet and how long sessions will last, Gottman therapy follows the same set of principles, including a basic assessment process and the use of specific therapeutic interventions.
The Gottman method couples therapy is backed by the Gottman Institute, which Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman founded together. The couple has conducted extensive research on every aspect of relationships, and developed a couples therapy approach that can not only correct relationship problems but also strengthen relationships that are already happy.
The Gottman Institute provides workshops and do-it-yourself training materials to couples, in addition to offering Gottman method training to couples counselors.
Goals & core principles of Gottman interventions
The primary goal of the Gottman Method is to support all couples, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, cultural background, and sexual orientation. Specifically, couple counseling techniques that follow Gottman psychology have the following goals:
Help couples to create greater empathy and understanding for each other
Increase levels of intimacy, respect, and affection in the relationship
Improve feelings of stagnancy within the relationship
How Gottman Therapy works
Gottman Therapy works by following the process outlined by the creators of this counseling philosophy.
A couple’s time with a Gottman therapist begins with a thorough assessment of the functioning of the relationship and then proceeds with Gottman interventions that are aligned to the couple’s strengths and challenges.
The Gottman assessment process
A Gottman assessment involves both joint and individual interviews between the couple/each individual and the Gottman therapist.
The couple will also complete a variety of assessments that evaluate the health of the relationship, including areas of strength, as well as challenging areas for the couple. The results of the assessment process are utilized to create interventions that strengthen the health of the relationship.
A common tool that Gottman counselors use is the “Gottman Relationship Checkup” which is an online assessment tool that scores a couples relationship in various areas, including friendship, intimacy, emotions, conflict, values, and trust.
Each partner completes the assessment on their own, and a report is generated, which includes recommendations and a summary of areas of strengths and weaknesses in the relationship.
While this assessment tool contains the same list of questions for each couple, it provides treatment recommendations specific to a couple’s unique needs, so treatment is individualized.
Gottman therapeutic framework
The John Gottman theory utilizes a specific therapeutic framework but considers each couple’s unique needs and preferences when determining the number of therapy sessions to be completed, as well as how long each session will last.
The Gottman approach utilizes a framework that includes what is called a “Sound Relationship House.”
The components below make up Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House:”
Building love maps: This requires partners to become familiar with each other’s life history, stresses, worries, high points, and dreams. Essentially, building a love map involves each member of the relationship acquainting themselves with the other’s psychological world.
Sharing fondness and admiration: To achieve this, partners must express affection and respect for each other instead of approaching each other with contempt.
Turning toward each other: When relationships hit rough patches, partners might avoid communicating with each other or ignore each other’s attempts to connect. Turning toward each other requires a conscious effort to share feelings and respond positively to each other’s attempts to connect or share affection.
Adopting a positive perspective: Instead of viewing each other negatively, the Gottman method encourages partners to use repair attempts during conflict and utilize positive problem-solving techniques.
Managing conflict: This room of the sound relationship house requires couples to recognize that conflict is inevitable and must be managed. It also necessitates an understanding of the fact that some conflict between partners is perpetual, meaning there is no solution to it, and it can never be resolved.
Making life dreams come true: With this component of the Sound Relationship House, couples work toward becoming comfortable with openly expressing their desires, values, and goals with each other.
Creating shared meaning: In this top floor of the Sound Relationship House, couples focus on creating shared visions and developing meaningful rituals together, such as unique ways of saying goodbye and reuniting at the end of the workday and enjoyable activities completed together.
Using the therapeutic framework discussed above, Gottman interventions include tools to help partners strengthen their relationships. Learning successful Gottman communication methods is a major component of these interventions. Some examples are as follows:
Gottman Repair Checklist: This Gottman communication intervention helps couples to identify healthy ways of repairing conflict.
The Four Horsemen Activity: This involves learning about the Four Horsemen, which include contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Dr. John Gottman has identified these as relationship-destroying conflict styles that should be avoided. Couples in Gottman therapy learn to identify these four conflict styles and replace them with healthier ways of managing conflict.
Conflict Blueprint Exercises: Gottman counselors may use conflict blueprint exercises to help couples use healthy conflict-resolution behaviors, such as compromising, listening, and validating each other.
Dreams with Conflict Exercise: This is among the Gottman method worksheets that can help couples to gain a better understanding of each other’s beliefs, dreams, and values on particular topics.
The Art of Compromise: This Gottman worksheet helps couples to identify areas in which they are able to be flexible, as well as areas that represent “core needs” that they cannot compromise.
The Gottman Repair Checklist is a core component of helping couples to improve their communication during times of conflict. It is based upon the idea that couples benefit from using repair attempts, which are actions that keep negativity under control during conflict. Repair attempts can be broken down into several categories:
I feel: These are statements that partners use during the conflict, such as expressing that they are fearful or stating that they feel sad or unappreciated.
Sorry: As the title might suggest, this involves apologizing to a partner during the conflict by directly expressing fault, asking for forgiveness, or admitting to overreacting.
Get to Yes: This type of repair attempts to look for a compromise and may involve expressing agreement or a desire to find common ground.
I Need to Calm Down: These repair attempts can involve asking to take a break, asking your partner for a kiss, or expressing feelings of being overwhelmed.
Stop Action!: Used when an argument is beginning to escalate. Stop Action requires asking your partner to stop the conversation, suggesting that you start over, or agreeing to change the topic.
I appreciate: When a couple uses these repair strategies, they may admit to their own wrongdoing, thank their partner for something they have said or done, or acknowledge that they understand their partner’s point of view.
Check out this video by Dr. Julie Gottman, who explains ways to convey your complaints in the relationship without hurting your partner:
Gottman recommends that partners master the art of making repair attempts and responding to their partner’s repair attempts to avoid relationship problems.
Gottman interventions during therapy sessions may involve games that help partners to choose repair attempts that they will use when they encounter conflict.
Who can benefit from Gottman therapy?
Remember that Dr. John Gottman developed the Gottman Method to help any couple, regardless of race, income level, cultural background, or sexual orientation, so the Gottman approach can be beneficial for just about any couple.
Fortunately, much research has been conducted on the Gottman method, and a recent study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that the method is highly effective for gay and lesbian couples, who experienced improvements in relationship satisfaction after eleven counseling sessions using the Gottman approach.
What can be concluded from studies like this is that Gottman psychology is respectful of diversity and can be effective for a range of relationship types.
While couples counseling is often thought of as being intended for those who are already struggling in their relationship, Gottman does not believe that couples need to be in the midst of chaos to benefit from this method of couple therapy techniques.
That being said, couples who are about to marry and want to start out on the right foot can benefit from Gottman therapy to help them develop the tools for a strong and successful marriage.
Couples who have a seemingly healthy level of conflict can also benefit from Gottman therapy to enhance their conflict management skills and prepare them to manage future issues that arise in the relationship.
Finally, couples who are in the midst of serious relationship conflict or challenges can profit from Gottman therapy, as they can learn healthier ways of managing conflict and gain a better understanding of each other to repair the relationship.
In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychological Research found that when couples underwent a program that utilized Gottman psychology, they enjoyed improvements in love, intimacy, and respect in their relationships, making Gottman couples therapy an effective option for couples who have significant work to do within their relationship.
Relationship issues appropriate for Gottman therapy
The Gottman Institute reports that the Gottman method can address issues like those below:
Ongoing conflicts and arguments
Unhealthy communication patterns
Emotional distance between couples
Relationships that are nearing a separation
Dr. Gottman also notes that the majority of problems in relationships are “perpetual problems,” and he separates these from solvable problems. Most of the work in Gottman therapy focuses on managing perpetual problems, which are unresolvable problems that couples seem to return to again and again.
These problems arise from differences in values and personalities between couples, and the Gottman method focuses on helping people to manage these differences in healthy ways and build shared meaning together so that perpetual problems do not lead to issues like contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
On the other hand, some problems discussed in Gottman therapy may be solvable, meaning they surround a parenting issue or a problem within a couple’s sex life, which can be resolved through problem-solving together.
The Gottman approach helps couples to become better at identifying which problems are solvable and which are simply perpetual problems that won’t ever arrive at a resolution.
By accepting that there are some differences that just can’t be solved, partners can learn to love and respect each other when discussing these differences, which ultimately strengthens the relationship.
The Gottman Method is a specific form of couples counseling that addresses unhealthy conflict management and communication styles and helps couples to improve their intimacy, love, and respect for each other.
It has been found to be effective in the research, and it is useful for many issues that couples encounter, such as sex problems, emotional distance, and differences in values and opinions.
If you are interested in couples counseling, you can find a list of providers who offer online marriage counseling.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.