Shy Krug, Ph.D., CST
Building a Sound Relationship House
In my latest blog post I briefly introduced Gottman Method Couples Therapy. This approach, developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, draws from both structured and emotionally focused interventions to facilitate a couple improving their friendship, effectively managing conflict, and creating shared meaning. But, how do we know what exactly to focus on in couples therapy? Where do we begin? Is there a structure to how the sessions are held?
Before beginning Gottman Methods Couples Therapy, we begin with a thorough assessment process, which includes an initial conjoint session, two individual session with the partners, and a comprehensive self-report questionnaire. At this point we have an enormous amount of information about what is working or not working in the relationship, and allows us to construct a treatment plan. The treatment plan is guided by a conceptual model developed by the Gottman's called the "Sound Relationship House" (SRH), pictured below. This model outlines the factors that contribute to functional, healthy relationships, and importantly, how to identify what isn't working in the relationship. I'd like to briefly introduce what the SRH is and how we tap into the three primary constructs, outlined in my latest blog.
Trust and Commitment
These two factors are pillars in the SRH. Without these two pillars intact, it would be impossible to build any other floors of the house. So what do these two concepts refer to in a relationship?
Trust refers to the question, "Does my significant other have my best interests at heart?" Namely, is my partner in this for the right reason? Do they want what's best for me? Are their intentions good? Do they have my back? As can be imagined, if an individual in the relationship questions their trust of the other's intentions, it can be exceedingly difficult to allow oneself to be vulnerable. How can someone be expected to "drop their guard" and share their most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, if there is a possibility this can be used against them by the other partner? This becomes a significant source of attention if trust is not intact in the relationship.
Commitment refers to the question of how invested are both parties in the relationship. Are you in this for the long haul? Are you there for each other no matter what? Through thick and thin? Do you cherish and nurture your partner, even when things are tough? And do you commit to working together to make things better when things are rocky? Commitment is a necessary requisite for a healthy relationship. If one or both parties does not have commitment, the slightest negative experience can result in someone walking away from the relationship. If this trait is weak in the relationship, it must be explored and reinforced before making meaningful strides in some of the other floors of the SRH.
Both trust and commitment are linked to one another. It's hard to have meaningful commitment if trust isn't intact, and it's equally hard to have meaningful trust if the couple is not committed to one another. These two relationship elements are central pillars in holding up the rest of the house and creating a meaningful, satisfying, and sustainable relationship.
Love maps refer to the friendship quality in the relationship. How well do you know each other? What nuances, facts, or insights do you have about the other person? What is your internal working model for who the other person is? These questions become the foundation to a meaningful friendship and are fundamentally essential to creating meaningful romantic relationships. How do we access and build love maps? Open-ended questions are the key to truly learning the other person. When we approach these questions with a genuine, non-agenda driven curiosity, we seek to truly know and understand the other person. This is the foundation of a healthy relationship.
Share Fondness and Admiration
Sharing fondness and admiration relates to a couple sharing with one another the things the other person does that are valued and appreciated. This expression of appreciation serves two important roles. On the one hand, it makes the receiver of this fondness and appreciation feel good. Who doesn't love hearing that something they did was appreciated? But the second, and perhaps more important, role of sharing fondness and admiration is that it changes the frame of the giver of the expression of fondness and admiration. If someone is tasked with sharing with their partner the things he or she does that are appreciated, the giver is now looking for things they value and appreciate. This emphasis on what is valued, rather than an emphasis on what is frustrating or upsetting, contributes to building up the other person in one's eyes. This is a core process involved in building a culture of appreciation in a relationship.
Turn Towards Instead of Away
This level of the SRH addressed the role of "bids" in a relationship. A bid is the "fundamental unit of emotional communication". Put differently, a bid is a gesture for emotional connection or when one partner is seeking something from the other. These can be both verbal and non-verbal. For example, offering to hold hands while walking together, sharing that you had a really upsetting day, or asking for help with the kids, are all bids one partner is making to another--all things that are fundamentally a request for a connection.
There are three ways a bid can be responded to: turning towards, turning away, and turning against. Turning towards means the listener is acknowledging and receiving the bid. This does not necessarily mean agreeing to the bid request, but it still means receiving it. Turning away means the listener is ignoring the bid. The initiator of the bid gets no response at all. Turning against means a bid is being met with aggression. For example, "How dare you ask for a favor when you know how much work I have on my plate!"
There can be dozens, if not hundreds, of verbal and non-verbal bids a couple can make towards each other ever day. One of the interesting things Gottman found in his research is that the "masters" of relationships turn "towards" one another's bids 86% of the time or more, and the "disasters" of relationships turn "towards" one another's bids 33% of the time or less. One area of focus in reinforcing the SRH is increasing the frequency with which bids are made and turned towards.
The Positive Perspective
This level of the SRH is the natural outgrowth of love maps, sharing fondness and admiration, and turning towards bids. If the lower three floors are intact, the result is something called "positive sentiment override". This means the couple maintains a positive perspective of the other. This also means that if something negative happens, the couple is more likely to interpret it through a positive lens and give the benefit of the doubt. On the flip side, if the lower floors of the sound relationship house are not intact, the result is something called "negative sentiment override". This means the couple maintain a negative perspective of the other person. This can mean that the couple interprets neutral, or even positive, situations through a negative lens. Negative sentiment override and positive sentiment override are not things that can be manipulated. Shifting from negative sentiment override to positive sentiment override is not as simple as just saying, "Just see your spouse more positively." It requires reinforcing the lower floors of the SRH to increase friendship, positive affect, and connection, which then allows for the positive sentiment override to become active in how the couple sees each other.
How a couple communicates, especially how a couple manages conflict, is a central factor in how couples build and maintain satisfying relationships. On this floor of the SRH, we focus on identifying problematic patterns of communication that can result in getting into perpetual conflict, not feeling understood, and becoming emotionally and physiologically activated. In the Gottman approach, we focus on identifying four specific patterns of communication that can become problematic: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. These four patterns, which Gottman refers to as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" become damaging to a relationship and can even predict the deterioration of a relationship. These four patterns of communication will be described in greater detail in an upcoming blog. Additional factors we focus on on this level of the SRH is how to accept our partner's influence, namely, how we can tune in to our partner's thoughts, feelings, needs, dreams, etc. to soften our positions and allow for dialogue and compromise. One of the fascinating things Gottman found in his research on couples is that 69% of arguments are fundamentally unsolvable. This means that there is is no functional "conclusion" to these arguments. With these type of disagreements, which may be about family, finances, religion, or personality differences, learning to dialogue about differences becomes much more important that "resolving" a difference.
Making Life Dreams Come True
One of the things we know about relationships is that the absence of negative feelings does not equate to positive feelings. Just because a couple effectively navigates conflict does not mean that their lives are filled with fulfillment and meaning. On this floor of the sound relationship house we are assisting couples in exploring what their individual and shared goals are. With the intentionality brought into the conversation about the direction a relationship goes in, couples may feel a greater sense of teamwork and alignment in their partnership. This is also an important floor of the house when it comes to dialoguing about conflict. When we understand the deeper dreams underneath the surface layer of the conflict, couples begin to develop a deeper understanding of each other which allows for greater opportunity for empathy, compassion, and compromise.
Create Shared Meaning
In this top floor of the SRH, we explore the ways in which a couple creates intentionality and purpose in their relationship. How does a couple experience their "togetherness"? How do they bring intentionality and a sense of purpose to their shared journey through life? One way we accomplish this is through a couple creating shared meaning together. This relates to how a couple cultivates a unique bond in how they interact with one another. One was we reinforce this is through the use of "rituals of connection". These rituals are special ways a couple sanctifies their time together with intentional moments of connection. These rituals can be short-term rituals, such as how a couple says goodbye before departing for work, intermediate rituals, such as how a couple spends their time together on weekends, or long-term rituals, such as how couples celebrate anniversaries or spend their vacations together. As can be expected, a couple effectively exploring and integrating meaningful rituals into their lives will require the lower floors of the SRH to be intact.
Putting it all Together
The Sound Relationship House offers us a cohesive and comprehensive model through which we can assess the health of a relationship while also serving as a roadmap to navigate the invariable ups and downs couples experience. When a couple initiates therapy, we can point to the SRH to identify not just what a couple is struggling, but also why a couple is struggling. In our upcoming blogs we will cover each of the components to the SRH in greater detail.