Gottman Couples & Marital Therapy


John Gottman has been conducting marital therapy research for 25 years, and is a well-respected leader in the field. Along with his wife Julie Gottman, they have developed an approach to Couples Therapy based on research findings. This approach encourages learning and developing relationship-skills which can be powerfully transformative and relatively easy to learn.

Some of Gottman’s more powerful research finding come from studies in his “Love Lab” – in which couples were observed, living in an “apartment lab” at the University of Washington. Using videotapes, questionnaires and live observation, couples were monitord in their daily lives: couples talking, arguing, trying to problem solve and simply being together. The research was all encompassing from measuring heartbeats and stress hormones to the functioning of people’s immune systems.

The research provides considerable information which enables one to predict, with a high degree of accuracy – about 94% – which couples will stay together and which are likely to divorce. Further, among those which stay together, which are likely to be happy and which unhappy.

From this work, some crucial questions emerge:

*   What are things like in marriages which are in trouble, hurting and are spiralling downward?

*   How do couples get to this point of feeling distant and disconnected from each other?

*   How can these cascades towards meltdown be turned around, even if the process has been underway for some time?

*   What happens in relationship where marriages thrive?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions.

Myths And Truths Of Marital Dysfunction

  • Myth 1) Affairs cause divorces – 20-25% of mediation groups say an affair was a reason, but the reason given by 80% is deterioration of intimacy. Further, 70% of men and 40% of women had affairs in the 1970’s but the numbers are now about equal, largely due to women moving into the work force and having greater access to partners.
  • Myth 2 Gender differences cause divorce – if this were so, the divorce rate would be 100% for heterosexual couples, and 0% for gay and lesbian couples
  • Myth 3 Communication problems cause marital conflict – actually, distressed people communicate quite clearly what they feel and mean. There are many other causes of marital conflict, and conflict itself is not in itself good or bad and in fact, important for developing trust and intimacy.
  • Myth 4 Not having a “quid pro quo” – the idea that we have a contract in which  “I do things good things for you so that you will do good things for me”.  Research shows this is not the case for ailing couples, but neither is it the case for happy couples either.

So what IS true?

  • Truth 1: The ratio of Positive interactions to negative in happy couples is 20 to 1, in conflicted couples is 5 to 1, and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1. Watching a couple interact when they are not in conflict is the best way to predict their risk for divorce.
  • Truth 2: Marriages tend to end at one of two times:

◦ 5-7 years due to high conflict

◦ 10-12 years due to the loss of intimacy and connection

◦ (there is some disagreement with Gottman on this issue, as marriages certainly end before 5-7 years, as well as between 7 and 10 years, but Gottman argues these are critical or high risk times for marriages).

  • Truth 3 When it comes to arguments, the type of person one partners with (attacker, soother, avoider) is not so important as the mismatch between the couple:

◦ soothers overwhelm avoiders, and you get the distancer-pursuer dynamic.

◦ soothers and attackers have little ability to influence each other, little positive sentiment, and a great deal of emotional tension.

◦ avoiders and attackers are the worst pairing, with severe distancer-pursuer dynamic.

◦ As with all descriptions of character-traits, these types refer to behaviors which can be monitored, regulated and to some extent changed. In this respect, relationship dynamics are alive and can be transformed.

Truth 4: Most problematic issues (69% in fact) don’t get solved, they get managed. Indeed most issues which couples get “gridlocked” around have more to do with character differences and show up as Perpetual or permanent problems. For example, Steve values organization and neatness – every thing has its place and much time is invested in organizing. Sarah couldn’t care less about organization – what’s much more important is sharing time with friends. The skills which work most effectively have much more to do with managing and not solving the problem.

Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse & Marital Meltdown

Gottman identifies four main “toxic behaviors” which contribute directly to couples feeling disconnected, isolated and distant from each other. When couples have a high frequency of these toxic behaviors, isolation and lonliness increases. These “cascades of isolation and lonliness”  increases the liklihood of marital meltdown and contribute strongly to the liklihood of divorce.

The toxic behaviors include, and are not restricted to:

Criticism:  Complaining with blaming or attacking or criticizing or harshness.  Examples:

“You dumb jerk Rob.. you left the milk out again”.

“What the hell’s wrong with you Sarah…I can’t believe you did’t put gas in the car.”

In fact, the way in which a discussion begins including the way in which complaints are expressed is hugely important in determining the way in which the discussion will go.

Defensiveness: There are many ways in which defensiveness can be expressed. Examples:

“Oh Yeah? Well what about what you did?”

“Well I wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t push me so hard”.

Contempt: This includes a range of behaviors from facial expressions – rolling one’s eyes, sighing in resignation, body language which pushes one’s partner away – to an “I’d never sink so low as to do something like that – what kind of person are you?”  Contempt often has an underlying tone of despising, loathing and devaluing one’s partner.

Stonewalling: Shutting down, withdrawing associated with high physiological arousal and efforts to self-soothe with thoughts like “I can’t believe she’s saying this!”

Typically women are more likely to criticize then men and men are more likely to stonewall and withdraw.

Anger and the Four Horsemen

Often couples get into heated discussions about crucial issues, sometimes giving rise to anger. Anger is often seen by writers as a dangerous and destructive emotion for couples because it is linked to agression. But it’s perfectly normal and human for couples to express irritablity and hurt, to feel pissed off and frustrated.

Gottman’s view is that anger by itself can best be understood as a way of saying “Something is important to me , so please pay attention”. Anger itself isn’t bad. It doesn’t necessarily make the relationship worse, nor is is necessarily good. What is crucial is the way in which the anger is expressed.

When anger is blended with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the result is toxic and gives rise to an “escalation of negativity”. When anger is met with a more intense response, for example:

Sue: “Screw you Steve. You left your underpants on the bathroom floor again…man,you’re a selfish slob”.

Steve: “Oh yeah. Well if you weren’t so uptight, like your damn sister…maybe for once you could realize that you’re not so perfect yourself ”.

So meeting anger with defensiveness, contempt or hostility erodes the trust and  is corrosive to intimacy. These interaction patterns are also, not surprisingly, strong predictors of marital meltdown.

Relationship States

We can describe relationships, broadly speaking, as existing in a state of  Positive Sentiment Override (PSO) or Negative Sentiment Override (NSO).

  • Positive Sentiment Override – PSO
    In these relationships, positive comments and behaviors outweigh negative ones about 20:1. It’s almost as if there is a positive filter that alters how couples remember past events and view new issues.

For example, Steve and Deb have been connecting positively with each other over the past week – a dinner date, lots of sharing, they made love yesterday and are planning a weekend getaway. Steve sees milk spilt on the kitchen counter and asks Deb to wipe it up when she has a minute because he is busy on the computer. She replies that it’s no problem and would he like a cup of coffee.

Very different from the scenario where Steve and Deb have been distant, hardly connecting with each other over the past weeks. They also had  a serious argument two days ago and haven’t recovered. Steve sees milk spilt on the counter and asks Deb in a slightly impatient tone to wipe it up.  She replies loudly that she’s not his servant and that he should get off his butt and start doing some things around the house for a change.

PSO makes a huge difference in relationships for the simple reason that  relationships and marriages that thrive, also have a strong PSO.

Obviously relationships don’t automatically have a Positive Sentiment Override. The warmth, trust, affection, caring and a host of positive emotions which we call PSO have to be nurtured, developed and maintained over time.

Gottman’s Sound Marital House

Gottman’s model of the Sound Marital House describes specific areas which need to function well in order for relationships to thrive. This calls for skills which directly support the liklihood of positive emotions and in turn, increase the liklihood of PSO. Lets take a closer look.

  • An intact Fondness and Admiration System, in which the couple is affectionate and clear about the things they value and admire in the other. Central to this is letting each other know quite frequently what it is that you do that I appreciate and value.
  • Love Maps or a good knowledge of each other’s world. Another way of describing this is the amount of RAM which I devote to the details of my partner’s life.  Do I know my partner’s best friend? Do I know what she’s hoping for most, right now, in her life? Do I know what does she worry about, is most concerned and troubled about these days? What does she fear the most? These are the kinds of things that people know about their partners when they have well-defined Love Maps.

Also critical are skills supporting the couple being able to regulate conflict, lessening the liklihood of serious conflict. These skills include:

Softened or gentle Startups which support effective, non-threatening and tactful ways to bring up a problem or complaint;

Physiological soothing which supports emotional regulation;

Being Open to Influence so that what you say, mean, think, value, and desire really matters to me and vice versa. In this way we can be more open to each other’s meanings and desires.

Repair Attempts or efforts to make up by using humor, clarifying intention “it wasn’t my intention to hurt you”, yielding and conceding a point “you’ve got good point there” and expressing remorse or regret or saying sorry. Repair attempts when there is a NSO take specific skills and focused work by the couple.

Regulating conflict and De-escalating by “putting on the brakes” and monitoring the emotional climate and atmosphere.

Energizing connection or Bids for Affection become essential to building the trust, affection, caring and fondness. Rituals of connecting through time, ways of staying in touch through the demands of family and work stressors and ways of navigating connnection are essential skills.

  • Negative Sentiment Override – NSO
    In these relationships, negative comments and behaviors just about equal positive ones, with five or fewer positive comments for every negative one. Couples showing about one positive for one negative comment, a 1:1 ratio, are on the path to divorce. In these couples, the negative filter screens out the few positive events that exist, and may cause the couple to “rewrite” their history together. Often what brought us together, what turned me on to you and you on to me, what really attracted me to you and you to me has been clouded out by the negative emotions and stories.

◦ Negative Sentiment Override (NSO) is based on a few basic processes that spiral out of control:

■  The Conflict shows a pattern of Demanding change and Withdraw from the discussion.

An example: Ted demands that Sylvia not spend the weekend with her parents and instead spend time with him. Sylvia feels invalidated by Ted – he doesn’t want to hear how important family is to her. She also feels emotionally overwhelmed by his inflexibility and unwillingness to listen to her so she withdraws from the conversation only to increase Ted’s anxiety of being ignored.

■ Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) is high especially during arguments. Elevated DPA gives rise to Flooding – and experience of being emotionally overwhelmed. This elevated DPA also directly inhibits the part of the brain responsible for empathy, problem-solving and strategic thinking, all of which are crucial skills for problem resolution and conflict management.

■ While Men are more likely to become Flooded and Stonewall as well as rehearse stress-inducing thoughts often around themes of Fairness and Revenge –  “This is so unfair – I can’t believe she’s doing this to me”  – “Just wait, I’ll get him back, he’ll pay for this big time” – “ If she thinks I’m gonna take it she’s got a surprise”.

■ A particulary toxic though common dynamic is the harsh complaint triggering an equally harsh reaction. It is difficult for human beings to “Buckle down and take it” – to absorb criticism and harshness when arguments become emotionally overwhelming or even abusive. So it  becomes crucial to skillfully monitor conflict before it becomes hurtful.

■ Unresolved conflict around crucial issues can result in an impasse giving rise to a marital Gridlock – often with harsh, painful and destructive overtones in which each partner becomes rigidly entrenched in his or her position.

■ This, in turn, may be resolved in one of two ways: Disengagement marked by increasing disconnection and emotional distance, or a high conflict period marked by the 4 Horsemen and high level of painful conflict.

Fortunately Gottman’s model provides clear alternatives.

Gottman’s model is flexible, clear and integrates with Mindfulness, EFT (Emotionally focused therapy), ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy) and DBT approaches.

While not explicit, Gottman provides a clear and flexible model which blends easily with ACT (click on) , EFT (click on) DBT (click on ) and Mindfulness (click on Mindfulness) approaches.

It is also important that over 60% of marital problems are not solved, but managed. Thus it becomes crucial that the couple talk about ways to manage these issues in the future, just like one manages a chronic illness like diabetes. Frequently the conflict is not about the topic they are discussing; rather, the real problem is some underlying or symbolic meaning which may be tied to a dream or fantasy or need, something that they feel they simply can not compromise on without invalidating their dreams or value.

Here it becomes important that the couple are mindful of these meanings and take time to explore and share their deeply held needs and values.

Gottman’s model also targets teaching six basic skills

◦ Recognizing (and avoiding) the 4 Horsemen;

◦ Softening and gentle startups;

◦ Accepting influence (especially for men);

◦ Soothing physiological arousal (relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once they are upset, it may take over 20 minutes for the body to slow itself down to calm levels);

◦ Recognizing (and responding to) repair attempts;

◦ Compromise;

What is also emphasized is recovery after a fight. Sure, you would prefer they avoid nasty fights, but Gottman has found in his research that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced. You may not be able to teach them to avoid fighting anyway, and reflective listening skills (“What I hear you saying is…”) likely won’t help since no one uses them in a fight. Instead, the best bet is to teach them how to recover after a fight.

  • Effective repair is easier to accomplish when there are Rituals of Connection, or standard and every-day ways the couple connects and feels bonded to each other. This means decreasing negativity during and after fights, as negativity is the best predictor of divorce over six years (85% accuracy), and effective repair skills increases prediction accuracy (97% accuracy), as among even highly negative newlyweds, 85% of those who effectively repair stay happily married.
  • Fade out the therapist – Gottman starts with 90 minute sessions, then eventually moves to once every two weeks, then month, and finally to “therapy checkups” to help the couple function on their own without the therapist, and avoid relapsing into previous problems.

Healing into the Thriving Relationship

My couples and relationship therapy work over the past twenty six years is constantly invigorated and refreshed by Couples’ resiliance, often in the face of hurt and betrayal. The commitment and dedication towards healing painful wounds and making the relationship worth having also entails working through resentment, hostility and bitterness. This reward often becomes apparent with time and dedication.

As couples begin to use skills which support the friendship, trust, affection and caring which they yearn for, the resentment, bitterness and hostility dissolve. Often there is a reconcialiation – not always a forgiveness – but a reconciling to what has been and what in the past, cannot ever be changed.

What can be altered and managed is my relationship to my story or memory or narrative of the past and how this shapes my action in the present.

And the more one is able to step out of the entanglement with restrictive and limiting stories, the more one can choose actions which really do support the values of the relationship I deeply want to make happen.


Interested in learning more about Gottman’s Theory?


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