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The Gottman Method: Couples Therapy Under the Microscope

John Gottman Blends Couples Counseling with Science

Katy Butler

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in a specially outfitted studio apartment in Seattle that reporters nicknamed the "love lab," mathematician-turned-psychologist John Gottman videotaped ordinary couples in their most ordinary moments---playing solitaire, chatting, kissing, disagreeing, watching TV, cooking dinner.

Sometimes Gottman, then a professor at the University of Washington, asked them to discuss an area of conflict while monitors strapped to their chests recorded their heart rates. Sometimes he sat them on spring-loaded platforms to record how much they fidgeted. He looked at how they brought up painful subjects, how they responded to each other's bids for attention, how they fought and joked, and how they expressed emotion.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, he and his fellow psychologists studied newlyweds, physically abusive husbands, couples who shouted a lot, and others who beat around the bush and never raised their voices. He used an elaborate coding system to track not only their verbal exchanges, but less obvious indicators of emotion: flickering facial expressions, sighs, clammy hands, rolling eyes, and galloping heartbeats. He followed some of the couples for more than two decades, recording who got divorced, who established parallel lives, and who stayed together.

He then took his data and translated them into numbers. Using complex computer models, he found that he could predict divorce with 91-percent accuracy, simply by analyzing seven variables in a couple's behavior during a five-minute disagreement. What he discovered made him famous. Most of what we reliably know about marriage and divorce in its natural state comes from his work.

In 1994, John Gottman and his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, an experienced clinical psychologist in her own right, combined his research and her therapeutic wisdom to fashion a science-based couples therapy. The Gottmans called their new approach Gottman Method Couples Therapy. It braids together classic therapeutic skills with two new elements: scientific dispassion and scientific authority. The dispassion comes from their extensive use of assessment and feedback, a legacy of John's research training. More than 30 pen-and-paper questionnaires are methodically administered to each partner before therapy begins; videotaping and heart-monitoring are part of therapy itself.

In the course of studying more than 3,000 couples, Gottman had discovered that most of them fought, and that even the most happily married couples never resolved 69 percent of their conflicts. When they returned to his lab at four-year intervals, the issues and even the phrases were essentially the same. Only their clothing and hairstyles changed.

What was crucial, Gottman learned, wasn't whether a couple fought, but how. Among those couples whose marriages survived well, whom Gottman and his colleagues came to call the "masters of marriage," wives raised issues gently and brought them up sooner rather than later. They broke rising tension with jokes, reassurance, and distractions. They didn't escalate their arguments.

Faced with a request or complaint from their wives (and 80 percent of the complaints did come from wives), the successful husbands didn't play king or cross their arms like rebellious teenagers. Instead they changed their behavior---doing more dishes, working fewer hours, giving more than lip service to their wives' dreams, or taking a child to the park to give an exhausted new mother a break.

Perhaps most notable, the master couples made at least five positive remarks or gestures toward each other for every zinger during a fight; in calmer times, their positive-to-negative ratio was an astounding 20 to 1.

The "masters of disaster" in Gottman's study group---those who eventually divorced---fought differently. Rather than complaining about specifics, the wives frequently globalized their criticisms, using phrases like "you never" and rhetorical questions like "What's wrong with you?" The husbands, for their part, frequently shut down, playing emotional possum or becoming as blank as a cement wall. The reverberation between them was so toxic that Gottman named criticism and stonewalling as two of his Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse. (The other two are defensiveness and contempt.) The presence of the Four Horsemen alone, he found, combined with pulse rates that rose above 95 beats per minute during a disagreement, were highly reliable predictors of divorce.

In both happy and unhappy couples, partners made plenty of subtle bids for attention, closeness, or reassurance. But the partners headed for divorce responded to each other's bids only 33 percent of the time, while the happy couples' response rate was 86 percent.

The authority in the Gottman Method comes from the research showing that therapists using this approach can decisively stop their clients from exercising the Four Horsemen of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They can teach their clients the behavioral skills used by Gottman's "masters of marriage," including little kindnesses that build a strong marital friendship, and tools to regulate conflict. Perhaps most important, the dispassion, structure, and authority of the approach act as counterweights to the discouragement and chaos often generated by couples in trouble---emotional storms that blow many a therapist into taking sides or losing control altogether.

This blog is excerpted from “The Art and Science of Love.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Couples

Tags: clinical psychologist | divorce | divorced | emotion | Gottman Method | HEAL | John Gottman | mental health | national institute of mental health | psychologist | science | success | TED | teenagers | therapist | therapists | therapy

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