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The Gottman Method for couples therapy

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

A man and woman in couples therapy.

The Gottman Method is a couples-based therapy that draws on the relationship studies from the married couple Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. The research-based intervention uses the Sound Relationship House theory and helps couples develop more understanding and awareness in order to achieve greater interpersonal growth and intimacy.

What Is the Gottman Method?

The Gottman Method for couples therapy is a personalized process that uses assessment- and research-based interventions to help couples improve their communication and address other problems in the relationship. 

The method is based on the Sound Relationship House theory, which helps couples build empathy and connection, while improving negative communication patterns. The Sound Relationship House imagines the relationship like a house, and every house and relationship needs a strong foundation. The explanation of the floors of the house are detailed later. 

In addition to the Sound Relationship House Theory, the Gottman Method also uses Gottman’s Four Horsemen. This analogy is used to illustrate how poor communication or responses can ruin a marriage. The four horsemen are:

  1. Criticism: Putting down a partner’s personality or character rather than behavior. For example, “You’re so inconsiderate!” vs. “I would like you to put down your phone when I’m trying to talk to you.”  
  2. Contempt: Statement or nonverbal behavior that attacks a partner’s sense of self-worth. This may include eye-rolling or sarcasm. 
  3. Defensiveness: Putting blame on a partner to ward off attacks. To counteract this, work on taking responsibility for feelings. 
  4. Stonewalling: Avoiding communication and refusing to engage. 

The four horsemen are communication issues that can cause serious problems for couples. The Gottman Method helps couples identify these issues when they happen and develop healthier communication techniques and reactions.

History of the Gottman Method

The Gottman Method is based on decades of empirical research with couples. Dr. John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson spent over 40 years doing longitudinal studies with more than 3,000 couples. These studies indicated that one of the main reasons why some couples divorced while others stayed together was due to how they communicated with each other.

Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, a clinical psychologist, and Dr. John Gottman formed the Gottman Institute. There, they took the results of this research and developed practical applications to the theory and study results in order to help couples.

The Sound Relationship House Theory

Dr. John Gottman first introduced the Sound Relationship House theory in his 1999 book with Nan Silver, “The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work.” The theory draws the comparison between a secure partnership and a house. Both the house and secure partnership have structural foundations that hold them up, along with a series of floors upon which couples can improve their relationships.

The seven floors in the theory include:

  1. Build Love Maps: Couples get to know each other by building “love maps” about each other, including sharing likes and dislikes, history, goals, dreams, and worries.
  2. Share Fondness and Admiration: Couples share characteristics or things about their partner that they like and appreciate.
  3. Turn Towards: Couples respond to each other’s “bid” to give comfort, support, and attention. A “bid” is something an individual says or does to get a response from their partner when they need comfort or support. When couples turn away from each other’s bid, it has a negative influence on the relationship.
  4. The Positive Perspective: Couples see the best in each other rather than rushing to criticize or take offense for the other’s actions. For example, if someone forgot to pick up milk on the way home from work, their partner would assume that they were preoccupied with work rather than seeing it as an intentionally malicious act.
  5. Manage Conflict: While all conflict cannot be avoided, couples learn to accept their partner’s feelings and thoughts, dialogue about the conflict, and use behaviors like taking a walk to remain calm in the situation.
  6. Make Life Dreams Come True: Couples encourage each other’s goals and support them in achieving their goals.
  7. Create Shared Meaning: Couples create something similar to a “love map,” but this is focused on their world as a couple. This can include creating shared rituals or symbols that have meaning for the couple.

In addition to the seven levels of the Sound Relationship House, the theory also includes two foundational pillars that help the levels stay together: trust and commitment. These are the walls of the house; they are necessary to keep the relationship standing strong. In healthy relationships, couples trust each other and make the commitment to stay together.

Who Can Benefit from the Gottman Method?

Generally speaking, most relationship problems can be categorized in one of two ways: problems that can be solved and problems that seem to repeat over time. The Gottman Method is particularly helpful in addressing perpetual problems. In other words, these are problems that will always exist, but couples can learn to manage these issues together.

The method can help couples who are experiencing issues with conflict, arguments, communication issues, sexual difficulties, infidelity, or issues surrounding money, parenting, or emotional distance. In addition, couples who aren’t experiencing significant difficulties but who want to improve their relationship can also find the Gottman Method useful.

What to Expect

The Gottman Method uses both assessments and research-based activities to help couples improve their relationship.

  • Assessment: The therapist talks to the couple and then each partner individually. In this part of the method, couples share their goals and history. They also complete a questionnaire. The therapist provides feedback to the couple about their relationship.
  • Therapeutic framework: The couple and therapist work together to determine the parameters of the therapeutic relationship. This can include the structure of the relationship, such as the duration and frequency of sessions. 
  • Therapeutic interventions: Couples learn specific techniques and interventions that will help them address the issues they face so that they can improve their relationship. In most cases, couples will meet together with the therapist, but there may be times where individual sessions are recommended as well. Sessions may include both activities designed to improve communication skills as well as education from the research studies about successful couples.

Does the Gottman Method Work? 

Based on decades of empirical studies, the Gottman Method is highly effective. Studies have shown that the Gottman Method has a positive effect on couples who have applied for divorce.1 A study focusing on gay and lesbian couples also found that the Gottman Method helped the couples show significant improvements in their relationships.2

Gottman Method Criticism

While the Gottman Method has generally been well-received, critics have pointed out that some of the communication difficulties that the Gottmans identified in the Four Horsemen can actually be helpful rather than harmful to the relationship. For example, some criticism can help individuals grow and change negative behaviors. The other communication issues can also be somewhat vague, leading to some confusion of when behaviors are destructive and when they may have other explanations.

Is the Gottman Method Right for Me?

When considering the Gottman Method for couples therapy, couples should consider their overall commitment to working on the relationship. Because the Gottman Method can be intense, with therapists expecting couples to work on activities outside of sessions, the method is best suited toward couples who are prepared to make changes to improve their relationship.

The method is also not recommended for couples who are experiencing domestic violence. Other forms of therapy are better suited to handling these situations.

The Gottman Method can help couples improve their communication and other parts of their relationship. The activities used in the method can also help couples develop long-term strategies for handling conflict together. 

Visit our therapist directory to find a Gottman Method couples therapist who can help you improve your relationship.

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