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The Gottman method for couples therapy

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

An unhappy middle aged couple sits on a couch talking to their therapist

The Gottman method is a personalized style of couples therapy that draws on the relationship work of two married psychologists and researchers, John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD. Their method aims to help couples improve communication, address conflict and other relationship problems, develop more understanding and awareness, and foster growth and intimacy.

The Gottman method suggests that most relationship problems fall into one of two categories: problems that can be solved (“solvable”), and problems that seem to repeat over time (“perpetual”).1 This method may be particularly helpful in addressing perpetual problems— problems that will always exist, but that couples can learn to manage together.

Couples struggling with conflict, communication, sex, intimacy, infidelity, money, parenting, or emotional distance may benefit from Gottman method therapy. In addition, couples who aren’t experiencing significant difficulties but want to improve their relationship may find the method useful.

History of the Gottman method

John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson, PhD, spent more than 40 years doing long-term research with married couples. Their results suggested that communication style was a major factor in whether a couple divorced or stayed together.

In 1986, John Gottman met Julie Schwartz, a clinical psychologist. The two were married one year later, and together they established the Gottman Institute in 1996. Drawing on Gottman and Levenson’s research, the Gottmans developed practical strategies to help improve relationships.

The four horsemen

The Gottman method recognizes four relationship-damaging styles of communication. These styles are called “the four horsemen” because they predict trouble in a relationship.2 They are:

  • Criticism: Putting down your partner’s personality or character (“You’re so inconsiderate!”) rather than their behavior (“I’d like you to put down your phone when I’m trying to talk to you”)
  • Contempt: Treating your partner disrespectfully or unkindly—for example, deliberately ignoring them, using sarcasm, rolling your eyes, or scoffing
  • Defensiveness: Blaming your partner or making excuses, usually in response to criticism that feels unfair
  • Stonewalling: Avoiding communication and refusing to engage

The Gottman method helps couples identify these issues and develop healthier communication techniques and reactions.

The sound relationship house

John Gottman outlined the concept of “the sound relationship house” in his 1999 book with Nan Silver, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” The basic idea is that a secure partnership is like a house: Both need sturdy foundations to hold them up. In a relationship, a couple’s mutual trust and commitment to one another act as “weight-bearing walls.”3

The “house” of a sound relationship is described as having seven “floors.” Each floor builds on the others and helps couples grow their connection while improving their communication:

  1. Build “love maps”: Create a guide to one another’s worlds. Ask questions to learn each other’s likes, dislikes, history, goals, dreams, and worries.
  2. Share fondness and admiration: Share things about each other that you like and appreciate.
  3. Turn toward, instead of away: Learn to recognize and respond to each other’s “bids.” A “bid” is something you say or do to get a response when you need comfort, attention, or support. When partners repeatedly ignore or turn away from each other’s bids, it can harm their relationship.
  4. The positive perspective: Assume the best of your partner, rather than rushing to criticize or be offended. For example, if your partner forgets to pick up milk on the way home from work, assume it happened because they were preoccupied, not because they were trying to be inconsiderate.
  5. Manage conflict: Learn to handle conflict while valuing each other’s feelings and thoughts. Discuss any conflict, whether it’s solvable or not. Learn how to self-soothe during disagreements so your emotions don’t overwhelm you.
  6. Make life dreams come true: Encourage each other and help one another reach goals.
  7. Create shared meaning: Develop shared rituals (such as a favorite neighborhood walk, or a daily habit of greeting each other affectionately) and symbols that have meaning for you as a couple.

What to expect

The Gottman method uses personal assessments and activities to help couples improve their relationships.

  • Assessment: In the first session, a Gottman method therapist will talk to a couple and ask them to share their history and goals for their relationship. They may also be asked to complete a questionnaire. The therapist then meets with each partner individually. After these initial sessions, the therapist provides feedback to the couple about their relationship.
  • Sessions: The couple and therapist decide on how long and how frequent sessions will be. Many couples opt for 90-minute weekly sessions, but some choose to pursue “marathon” sessions offered by the Gottman Institute in which they meet for six-hour sessions for several consecutive days.4
  • Interventions: Couples will learn techniques that help them address the issues they face in a constructive, connected way. Sessions may include education and activities designed to improve communication skills.

Is the Gottman method right for you?

When considering the Gottman method, couples should consider their overall commitment to working on the relationship. Because therapists often expect intense engagement, with both partners working on activities outside of sessions, it’s best suited for couples who are prepared to commit a significant amount of time and make immediate changes.

Because couples counseling isn’t recommended for anyone in an abusive relationship, the Gottman method also isn’t recommended for couples experiencing domestic violence.5 If you’re experiencing abuse, you can get free, confidential help 24/7 by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Find a therapist

If you’re interested in improving your communication and developing long-term strategies for handling conflict in your relationship, visit our therapist directory to find a Gottman method specialist near you.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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