Try the Gottman Framework: For the Clinician Who Ever Wondered, “What was I thinking when I decided I’d do couples’ therapy?!”

By Nancy D. Young, PhD

 I know what it’s like to sit across from a couple and think, “What in the world can I possibly say that could turn this battleship around?!”  What is more important than helping couples find a safe haven with one another, that secure base with which to arm themselves as they march forward into the future with all its joys and its turbulence? 

 But couples don’t make our jobs easy.  According to the Gottman research, couples generally come to see us about 6 years after somebody has said “We need some help,” and they’ve been sliding down the rabbit hole ever since (albeit some more rapidly than others). 

 Then they come in to see us, often as a last ditch attempt—a Hail Mary of sorts—and look at us across the room, imploring us with an expression of “HELP!” or, sometimes, with an expression of resignation that says, “I’m here to prove [to myself, my partner, my mother, to my individual therapist, and/or to you] that NOTHING will EVER work for us.”  At times, we feel “outnumbered” in the room, if only by some slight margin! 

 And you want so badly, in that moment, to have some couples’ therapy “magic” for them, so you start scrambling through your training, your supervisor’s vast imparted wisdoms, and your own relationship experiences, hoping to find the right folder quickly enough in the file cabinet that is your brain! Maybe the couple tells you about a wake of therapists who’ve “failed them” preceding their visit to you.  And, if you are seduced into that, your desperate search through the files accelerates measurably in the moment, just like it does when you can’t find your car keys and you’re really late!  After over 30 years of working with couples (and nearly 40 years researching romantic love and relationships), I have enormous empathy and compassion for all of us who do this work.  And I am without arrogance or judgment for all of us who struggle at times. 

 When I first started my own research on “intense/compelling love” back in the mid-1970s, there was really a paucity of information on love.  In 1978, Senator Proxmire awarded the “Golden Fleece Award” to Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid for just applying for funding to study romantic love!  (He said he felt we should not even try to understand love!)  Not long after that, I attended an APA meeting and heard a talk regarding the sex life of the quail.  Apparently, quail mating behavior was more important science than human connection and romance!  But the 1970s were a time when few researchers and clinicians were starting to get curious about how to help couples with more than platitudes or arm-chair theorizing. 

 It was 1972 when John Gottman (University of Washington) and his friend and colleague, Bob Levenson (U.C. Berkeley), began studying newlyweds in an attempt to predict divorce.  Ultimately, their research yielded massive and robust empirical data on what they came to call the “Disasters of Marriage” and the “Masters of Marriage,” and culminated into the best overall model for working with couples I have seen anywhere.  Their Sound Relationship House (SRH) model is deeply grounded in science (http://www.gottman.com/research/research-faqs/), very clear and applied, and has provided the basic framework for all my couples’ work for the past 16 years.  While sometimes I may “decorate a room or two” in the House with a technique or tool from another model, the Gottman SRH, like that basic black dress, is my enduring foundation. 

 John and Julie Gottman, along with their colleagues, have studied several thousand couples (including those recently married to those who’ve been together long term, gay and straight, richer and poorer, and racially, geographically, & socioeconomically diverse).  The Gottmans have interviewed them, videotaped their interactions (coding words, gestures, body language, etc.), and taken physiological measures (e.g., heart rate, sweat flow, stress hormone levels, blood pressure, immune function, even the amount of “jiggling” they did in the chair when discussing a conflict topic).  They have followed couples annually to see how they were doing.  Their work has allowed them to predict, with over 90% accuracy, which couples will divorce and which ones will stay together and, by being able to discriminate the behaviors of the “Masters” from those of the “Disasters.” They were able to formulate a clear, step-by-step approach to helping couples change the trajectories of their failing relationships.

 Distilled down, the Sound Relationship House is built on three basic levels, and we are given a host of well-validated and reliable measures with which to assess a couple’s strengths and challenges in detail across these levels.  The three levels are:

  1. The Friendship, Admiration, Affection level

  2. The Conflict-Management level

  3. Shared Meanings level: Partner and Partnership Actualization

 The research shows that level 1 is crucial because managing conflict well requires a positive and solid “emotional bank account” that can be built through exercises designed to help couples nurture the friendship and connection, build a culture of appreciation and praise, keep affection (romance and sex) alive, turn towards one another rather than away (or against), and maintain a ratio of positives to negatives in the relationship of 5:1 or better.  When we can help a couple do these things, they all combine together to result in a positive or negative over-arching perspective in their relationship; the former of which is fundamental to their weathering conflict gracefully together.  In addition “trust,” the #1 quality people report wanting in a mate, requires “attunement” and a sense of emotional connection.  Finally, the Gottman research has shown that while early divorces tend to stem from too much negativity (i.e., conflict), later divorces are more often a function of too little positivity (or friendship, admiration, affection, etc.) in the relationship.

 Level 2 provides the “rules of engagement.”  Here, we are given easy-to-apply tools to help clients learn to physiologically self-soothe, use softened start-up, accept influence, avoid the “4 Horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), and use repair attempts to keep a conflict discussion productive.  The research shows that only 31% of couples’ conflicts are “resolvable” and the SRH model offers an exercise form called “The Art of Compromise” to help couples work on those issues.  For the whopping 69% of issues found to be “perpetual and unresolvable” (i.e., deeply rooted in personality, temperament, cherished dreams, etc.), the SRH model affords us the “Dreams within Conflict” exercise to help couples avoid gridlock.  And when the inevitable sometimes happens and the couple skirmishes, the SRH model gives us a way of helping couples process what happened using “The Aftermath of a Regrettable Incident” exercise. 

 Level 3 gives us some exercises to help couples discover and support each other’s personal goals and dreams as well as other exercises to help the couple discuss how they want to create and maintain family traditions that specifically reflect them.  Still other exercises assist the couples in defining their dreams as a couple and develop a “Mission and Legacy” for their relationship.

 As a clinician of many years in the trenches with couples, I am incredibly grateful to have the SRH model to use with my couples and for the Gottmans’ dedication to continuous exploration in their research, sharing the principles and tools that are its outgrowth.  It is structured enough to provide the clinician a framework, yet flexible and “roomy” enough that each of us can bring it through with our own sense of personality, wisdom, and life experience.

 

Nancy D. Young has a Ph.D. in Social-Personality Psychology from the University of California, Riverside, a M.A. Social-Personality Psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Denver, Colorado. Dr. Young has over thirty years of experience specializing in therapy with adult individuals, couples, and groups, and, for 20 years, she was an Adjunct Professor at Chapman University, teaching such classes as: Intro to Psychology, Interpersonal Attraction & Romantic Love, Human Sexuality, Sexual Disorders & Treatment, and Chemical Dependency Treatment.