Updated: Sep 16, 2022
We are struggling in our relationship and we know we need help. But, we don't even know where to start.
With the multiple couples therapy modalities out there, what kind of approach is best for us? Over the course of the next few blog posts, I'd like to outline a few of the most popular couples therapy modalities and identify some of the core differences between them.
What I would begin with though, is that the success of therapy has more to do with the rapport with the therapist than it does with the specific modality. If a couple doesn't have a good therapeutic relationship with the therapist, a great approach to therapy will not produce the strong outcomes it might have otherwise have had if the therapeutic relationship was strong. My general recommendation when seeking a couples therapist (or individual therapist for that matter) is to find a therapist you can really connect with. If that rapport it strong, you will likely see growth and progress in your therapy, with whatever modality the therapist is using.
That being said, individuals and couples still may have preferences for particular styles and approaches to therapy. I'd like to begin with an introduction to Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
The Gottman approach was developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, a married couple living in the Pacific Northwest, based on over four decades of research studying couples. The therapy focuses on three primary areas which aim to strengthen a couple's relationship: Friendship, Constructive Conflict, and Shared Meaning. Let's jump into greater detail about what these areas are about.
In Gottman's research, he found that one of the most salient factors that contributes to the longevity of a romantic relationship is friendship serving as the foundation of the relationship. What we often see or experience at the beginning of a relationship is a period of time where the couple feels "in love", also called "limerence". This wonderful and enjoyable part of a relationship typically lasts for the first two years or so, often described as the "honeymoon phase". This stage is characterized by intense feelings of physical and emotional attraction, perhaps even rising to the level of infatuation. As fun and exciting as the limerence period is, it is short-lived. The intensity of that emotions wears off to some degree over time, and if the friendship is not firmly established beneath it, a relationship may begin to deteriorate. So what does a "friendship" really mean?
This friendship is rooted in a deep knowledge and understanding of the other individual. In the beginning of the relationship, your internal working model of the other person is non-existent. You don't know them at all yet. But as you begin to have shared experiences, and as your partner begins to share more of their internal world with you, you begin to fill in this internal working model. Soon you have an understanding of the person's background, upbringing, dreams, hopes, fears, interests, passions, etc. It is only through this deeper understanding of the other person that you can build meaningful emotional connections. Soon, you can know your partner so deeply that you can finish their sentences, know what kinds of gifts to get them, understand what triggers painful emotions, or how to make them feel loved. This is where true love, not just feeling "in love", is rooted.
What sometimes happens in relationships is that we forget to continue getting to know our partners. We go through all this hard work to deeply know our partner and establish that friendship throughout the courtship process, but we do not continue to nurture this friendship over time. It is almost as if though we are carried by the momentum of the hard work we put in and forget that if we don't continue pressing on the gas pedal, the car will eventually come to a stop. This is what happens when a couple feels like they are disconnected. The friendship in the relationship has atrophied over time and what is left are two people who no longer feel understood or no longer understand the other person.
This is one of the core goals of the Gottman approach. We utilize a number of specific exercises focused on examining and exploring the friendship in the relationship. We are not simply operating on the surface level in the relationship but diving deeper into the underlying emotions and dreams to fortify a deep emotional connection. This is a product of hard work and intentionality and is best attained through a process of compassion and curiosity for the other person's experience.
Management of Conflict
In order to facilitate how a couple taps into the friendship in their relationship, we need to ensure that how the couple communicates will best facilitate the process of feeling known and understood. If couples find themselves falling into unworkable or unhealthy patterns of communication, they may find themselves getting into perpetual conflicts, potentially resulting in an emotional and interpersonal gridlock. To help facilitate this process, there are specific exercises we focus on in the Gottman approach that are geared towards being more gentle and compassionate in the expression of need and being receptive and curious as the receiver of that need. This may be accomplished through proactively addressing an upcoming stressor, engaging in an effective repair attempt following a painful or upsetting episode, or effectively dialoguing about a perpetual difference.
When we talk about the management of conflict, our aim to not to prevent or avoid all conflict. Arguing is a natural, and sometimes even important, part of a relationship. The questions becomes, how can a couple argue effectively without tearing at the fabric of the relationship. As a part of the Gottman approach, we work to identify specific patterns that may repeat themselves in a couple's communication and replace them with more effective strategies.
This, however, is not exclusively about behavioral or communication modification. We utilize these conflicts to dig deeper below the surface to explore underlying needs, dreams, or triggers to help a couple connect on a deeper level. Through these deeper explorations we are simultaneously increasing the couples knowledge and understanding of each other, strengthening the friendship in the process, while also developing tools to communicate more effectively. This is one way that the Gottman approach is differentiated from traditional behavioral couples therapy which would focus exclusively on modifying behavioral patterns while the Gottman approach is fundamentally an emotionally focused approach to couples therapy. If we don't facilitate an exploration of the deeper emotion as we build tools to manage conflict more effectively, we are missing the forest for the trees. Working to manage conflict more effectively is the medium that allows for a deeper understanding between a couple.
Creation of shared meaning reflects some of the bigger picture elements of the relationship. How does a couple create shared meaning together? What creates their shared sense of purpose? What are some of the goals a couple is working on together? What is the vision the couple has for how they'd like to raise their family? What are the values that create meaning in the relationship, family, and home? These questions, as might be expected, are also significantly linked to both the friendship quality in the relationship as well as how a couple manages conflict. A couple having shared meaning will be based on how each person understands the other and will also involve a couple effectively dialoging about their needs in a way that the other person can compassionately receive those needs.
This element of creating shared meaning is important because it gives meaning and intention to the relationship. It creates a certain sanctity in the relationship as it is imbued with rituals that cultivate connection, meaning, and purpose. In a certain way, it elevates the relationship and creates a uniqueness that only the two individuals can feel. This is a common area that some couples feel lost. Even if a couple effectively communicates and the friendship quality is intact, the lack of shared meaning can result in one or both individuals feeling lonely or disconnected. Without these rituals of connection in place, there can be two people living lives in parallel, side by side, but only minimally feeling the presence of the other person in a meaningful way. One of the goals in the Gottman approach is the help facilitate a process in which a couple brings intentionality into the process of creating this shared meaning.
As I've noted above, each of these three components overlaps with the others. These are not standalone factors that exist in isolation from the others, rather, they weave together to form the strong bonds that allow for sustainable and satisfying relationships. In the Gottman approach to couples therapy, we begin with a process of assessing where a couple stands in these three areas, but, as I note below, also take a more modular approach to identifying areas of concern in a relationship.
These three areas of focus in Gottman Method Couples Therapy are broken down into nine distinct categories in something called "The Sound Relationship House." The Sound Relationship House is a model that is used to guide the therapeutic process through identifying weak points in the house that need to be fortified as well as reinforcing existing strengths in the relationship. The SRH serves as a roadmap for how to help guide a couple towards the relationship they dream of. The Gottman Method utilizes a combination of strategies, insights, and skills to facilitate a process in which a couple explores one another's inner world to facilitate a deep bond in their friendship, workable and functional communication, and value congruent shared meaning.
This Sound Relationship House will be described in greater detail in an upcoming blog.