Couples Therapy: The Gottman Method

How does the Gottman Method work?
on September 07, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

There are many different approaches to couples therapy, with each method boasting positive results for a variety of relationship issues

Founded in 1996 by Dr. John and Julie Gottman, the Gottman Method offers a positive and practical approach to marital discord which is rooted in psychological research on the subject. 

By defining the common causes of relationship problems, it also offers seven steps toward a solution — an approach that has become popular with couples therapists in recent years. After studying the practice at the Gottman Institute, practitioners of the method use this approach during couples therapy or in tandem with other therapeutic frameworks. 

So how does it all work? We spoke to a Certified Gottman Therapist to get the low-down on the benefits of the Gottman Method — and how to apply it in your own relationship here. 

What is the Gottman Method?

The Gottman Method is an approach to couples therapy founded by Dr. John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman. 

“The Gottman Method is essentially the culmination of nearly 50 years of relationship research that aims to help improve relationships,” says Adam Smithey, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and Certified Gottman Therapist.

“The beautiful thing about the Gottman Method is that the Gottman Institute has done an incredible job at taking complex scientific data and demystifying it for consumption by the general population.” 

These therapeutic interventions use psychological research to identify the elements of stability in romantic relationships and the patterns which cause marriages to break down. Trained therapists then utilize the Gottman approach to help couples to develop communication skills and tactics to help safeguard their relationship for the future. 

“I think the simplest gift of the Gottman Method is that it has offered couples a sense of hope, direction, and empowerment,” says Smithey. 

What are the 4 pillars of Gottman? 

Gottman studies point to four communication habits that lead to relationship difficulties that are predictive of divorce, which Dr. John Gottman coined the Four Horsemen. 

  1. Criticism of the partner’s personality 

  2. Defensiveness 

  3. Stonewalling 

  4. Contempt 

From the evidence-based perspective of the Gottman Method, these issues are seen to have a detrimental impact on the couple's relationship if not resolved. 

What are the Seven Principles of Gottman? 

The Gottman Method couples therapy aims to combat these relationship issues by using the concepts of Dr. John and Julie Gottman and applying these reforming principles to married couples who are struggling with conflict and intimacy. 

This process starts when a certified Gottman Method therapist provides a thorough assessment of the couple’s relationship to understand both their positive and negative interactions. These findings are then integrated with research-based interventions based on the Sound Relationship House Theory to help improve the relationship in question. 

This is achieved through seven main ‘steps’ or principles which are provided during in-person or virtual marriage counseling by a licensed Gottman therapist. 

Build Love Maps
Share fondness and admiration
Turn toward one another
Accept influence
Solve problems that are solvable
Manage conflict and overcome gridlock
Create shared meaning

These principles aim to combat the ‘Four Horseman’ — using therapy sessions to resolve these conflicts and preventing the breakdown of the relationship. 

How does the Gottman Method work?

“The Gottman Method works by increasing each partner’s awareness and intentionality,” says Smithey. 

“That’s really it. There’s no huge secret to it. We’ve learned that a couple must continually update their knowledge of each other, acknowledge and appreciate each other, and not take things for granted.” 

Therefore, an ideal Gottman relationship is one which negates the need for conflict by encouraging couples to see their partner in a new and more positive light. This approach aims to increase intimacy and love between couples by putting their own actions into perspective — looking at how all the little things you do add up to make a relationship work. 

“It really comes down to making a choice,” says Smithey. 

"When your partner walks into the room, do you choose to put your phone down and go give them a hug? If you’re lying in bed, side by side watching a show together, do you choose to reach out and snuggle or to hold hands? When you find yourself in conflict together, do you make the choice to be kind, gentle, and respectful? Or, do you choose to criticize, blame, attack, defend, or avoid? "

Although Dr. Gottman founded this method based on extensive research, the approach seems relatively simple — it focuses on creating rules to live by in your relationship, which is perhaps why Gottman therapy has such a loyal following by couples therapists and practitioners alike. 

“The Gottman Method works by empowering couples to take an active role in their relationship and essentially work together to create something they are both proud of,” says Smithey. 

“A lot of my initial work with couples is to help them unlearn the negative habits they’ve developed — and then teach them this method of intentionally connecting together.” 

What techniques does the Gottman Method use? 

The techniques of the Gottman approach vary slightly depending on the therapist and your individual relationship issues. However, all methods are derived from the seven principles to combat the four main relationship conflicts which are outlined in the original theory.

“As a researcher at heart, John Gottman is the science behind The Gottman Method, and Julie Gottman, a highly respected clinical psychologist, is the art,” says Smithey. 

“As such, therapy with the Gottman Method includes a cornucopia of effectiveness as it incorporates aspects of various therapeutic techniques. For instance, the method is influenced by behavioral, cognitive, psychodynamic, and narrative therapies.”

While the Gottman Method is a therapeutic approach in its own right, it’s commonly used alongside other therapy techniques to help repair marital discord. 

“The therapeutic application of the Gottman Method can be easily intertwined with many therapeutic techniques,” says Smithey. 

Overall, the techniques used desire to create healthy relationships by encouraging couples to stay curious, remind themselves how lucky they are to have such an emotional connection, and unconditionally accept their partner for who they are.

How does the Gottman Method approach conflict? 

“The real bread and butter though is in how the Gottman method approaches conflict,” says Smithey. 

“Gottman’s research shows that 69% of conflict is perpetual — meaning it will never go away and you will argue about this topic in one way or another for eternity.” 

Although this doesn’t sound very appetizing, recognizing this kind of relationship issue is key for conflict management. 

TikToks or other memes often give examples of these kinds of conflicts. For example, “Every relationship has a partner that is always early and one partner who is always late.” This is an example of a perpetual problem that might not always be a conflict, but which defines a fundamental difference between partners. 

So, how does the Gottman Method approach this kind of marital conflict? 

“Instead of trying to solve or fix your partner — The Gottman Method focuses on how to manage this conflict,” says Smithey. 

"Essentially the goal is to have conflict make us stronger. This is achieved by going deeper and understanding our partner’s dreams. It’s not about always being early — it’s about showing respect, or making a good first impression, or soothing your partner’s anxiety."

Therefore, this therapeutic framework aims to turn conflict into positive interactions focused on problem-solving. 

Instead of opting for defensiveness or stonewalling your partner, Gottman couples’ should always be looking for solutions that benefit the relationship. The idea is that for every negative feeling or interaction between partners, there must be five positive feelings or interactions.

“Couples don’t fight over problems, they fight for their proposed solution,” says Smithey. 

“The bottom line about conflict is that we do more harm in how we argue than we do with what we are arguing about.” 

Who is the Gottman Method for? 

As Smithey explains, the Gottman Method is an effective method of couples therapy that tries to bring a new perspective to couples counseling. 

After the assessment process, the research-based Gottman Method aims to embed a positive perspective within the relationship — shifting conflict and negativity into making life dreams come true. 

“Any committed relationship can benefit from the Gottman Method,” says Smithey. 

“Singles can use insights to enhance their relationship-building skills while premarital couples can benefit from intentionally designing their future, and long-married couples can feel more connected as they transition into life’s next phase.” 

This idea suggests that the Gottman approach gives its followers a positive perspective and outlook that they can apply to all of their relationships — whether in a partnership or not. 

What are the benefits of the Gottman Method? 

Couples who have tried out this type of therapy seem to be convinced of its benefits, especially in regard to intimacy and resolving conflict. 

Relationship issues can be daunting, but the main benefit cited about this approach is the way in which it resolves to change the thought process around traditional couples therapy. Instead of viewing therapy as defeat, they see it as an opportunity for the couple to work together to find a solution. 

“The benefits are too many to list,” says Smithey. 

“In the couples that I’ve worked with and even in my own marriage, the main benefit has been the feeling of being seen and understood by your partner. To have hope in ‘we can get through this’ is a powerful thing.” 

What is the effectiveness of the Gottman Method? 

According to research, the Gottman Method is proven to be effective in improving marital adjustment and intimacy. 

“In my own couples therapy practice, of the couples that incorporate The Gottman Method into their lives, 95% report positive outcomes in their relationship,” says Smithey. 

If you’re interested in the Gottman Method, you can locate a certified therapist near you through their website. Or if you’re keen to simply adopt this way of thinking by working on your own relationship — try Paired to make this an everyday practice. 

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