Rethinking Couple Therapy

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I do a lot of couple counseling. THE BOOK I try and get into the hands of embattled couples is The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999) by John Gottman, PhD. Dr. Gottman is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, and along with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, is the founder and director of the Gottman Institute and the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle. He is simply one of, if not, “the” foremost relationship experts in the world.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell provides a good introduction to Gottman in the first chapter of his book Blink (2006). Entitled “The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way,” Gladwell writes:

“How much do you think can be learned about (a couple’s) marriage by watching (a) fifteen-minute videotape? Can we tell if their relationship is healthy or unhealthy? I suspect that most of us would say (fifteen minutes) doesn’t tell us much. It’s much too short….To make an accurate prediction about something as serious as the future of a marriage–indeed, to make a prediction of any sort–it seems that we would have to gather a lot of information and in as many different contexts as possible.

But John Gottman has proven that we don’t have to do that at all. Since the 1980s, Gottman has brought more than three thousand married couples…into that small room in his ‘love lab’ near the University of Washington campus. Each couple has been videotaped, and the results have been analyzed according to something Gottman dubbed SPAFF (for specific affect), a coding system that has twenty separate categories corresponding to every conceivable emotion that a married couple might express during a conversation. Disgust, for example, is 1, contempt is 2, anger is 7, defensiveness is 10, whining is 11, sadness is 12, stonewalling is 13, neutral is 14, and so on….When (the research staff) watch a marriage videotape, they assign a SPAFF code to every second of the couple’s interaction, so that a fifteen-minute conflict discussion ends us being translated into a row of eighteen hundred numbers – nine hundred for the husband and nine hundred for the wife. (When the data from electrodes and sensors are factored in about each partner’s physiology during the discussion, a great deal of information has been gathered in a short amount of time).

On the basis of those calculations, Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. Recently, a professor who works with Gottman…discovered that if they looked at only three minutes of a couple  talking, they could still predict with fairly impressive accuracy who was going to get divorced and who was going to make it. The truth of a marriage can be understood in a much shorter time than anyone imagined” (thus the term “thin-slicing,” referring to the ability to find “patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience”).

Simply put, the research behind Gottman Method Couple Therapy (GMCT) has caused us to rethink couple therapy. Discussing “Why Most (Couple) Therapy Fails” in chapter one of The Seven Principles book, Gottman writes:

“Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that communication–and more specifically, learning to resolve your conflicts–is the royal road to romance and an enduring, happy marriage….The sweeping popularity of this approach is easy to understand….So it seems to make sense that calmly and lovingly listening to each other’s perspective would lead couples to find compromise solutions and regain their marital composure.

The most common technique recommended for resolving conflict–used in one guise or another by most marital therapists–is called active listening. For example, a therapist might urge you to try some form of the listener-speaker exchange. Let’s say that Judy is upset that Bob works late most nights. The therapist asks Judy to state her complaints as ‘I’ statements that focus on what she’s feeling rather than hurling accusations at Bob….Then Bob is asked to paraphrase both the content and the feelings of Judy’s message, and to check with her if he’s got it right. (This shows he is actively listening to her.)….By forcing couples to see their differences from each other’s perspective, problem solving is supposed to take place without anger….The problem is that it doesn’t work….

When you really think about it, it’s not difficult to see why active listening so often fails. Bob might do his best to listen thoughtfully to Judy’s complaints. But he is not a therapist listening to a patient whine about a third party. The person his wife is trashing behind all those ‘I’ statements is him….If you think validation and active listening will make conflict resolution easier for you and your spouse, by all means use it. There are circumstances where it can certainly come in handy. But here’s the catch: Even if it does makes your fights ‘better’ or less frequent, it alone cannot save your marriage. Even happily married couples can have screaming matches – loud arguments don’t necessarily harm a marriage….(We) now understand that this approach to counseling doesn’t work, not just because it’s nearly impossible for most couples to do well, but more importantly because successful conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages succeed. One of the startling findings of our research is that most couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do  anything that even partly resembles active listening when they’re upset.”

CAVEAT: Don’t go thinking that the Gottman research has no place for “active listening” and “I-messages.” He writes later in Seven Principles: “But I have found that this same listening technique can be extremely beneficial if you use it during discussions where you are not your spouse’s target. In this context, you’ll feel far freer to be readily supportive and understanding of your spouse and vice versa. This can only heighten the love and trust you feel.” (Pages 88-89 offer helpful instructions for having this discussion.) 

So “What Does Make Marriage Work?” according to this research? Gottman writes: “It soon became apparent that…happy marriages were never perfect unions. Some couples who said they were very satisfied  with each other still had significant differences in temperament, in interests, in family values. Conflict was not infrequent. They argued, just as unhappy couples did, over money, jobs, kids, housekeeping, sex, and in-laws. The mystery was how they so adroitly navigated their way through these difficulties and kept their marriages happy and stable.

(The closer) I looked at happy marriages the clearer it became that they were alike in seven telltale ways. Happily married couples may not be aware that they follow these Seven Principles, but they all do. Unhappy marriages always come up short…usually in many of them.” Those “Seven (Research) Principles” are as follows:

#1 – Enhance Your Love Maps

#2 – Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

#3 – Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away

#4 – Let Your Partner Influence You (a.k.a. The Positive Perspective)

#5 – Solve Your Solvable Problems

#6 – Overcome Gridlock (a.k.a. Honor One Another’s Dreams)

#7 – Create Shared Meaning

In rethinking couple therapy according to this research, perhaps the most distinctive and definitive feature is the focus of therapy, succinctly stated by Gottman in the final paragraph of chapter two.

“I now know that the key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is not in how you handle disagreements but in how you are with each other when you’re not fighting. Although (the) Seven Principles will also guide you in coping with conflict, the foundation of my approach is to strengthen the friendship that is at the heart of any marriage.” 

I close with Gottman’s example of Nathaniel and Olivia.

“Take the case of hardworking Nathaniel, who runs his own import business and works very long hours. In another marriage, his schedule might be a major liability. But he and his wife Olivia have found ways to stay connected. They talk frequently on the phone during the day. When she has a doctor’s appointment, he remembers to call to see how it went. When he has a meeting with an important client, she’ll check in to see how it fared. When they have chicken for dinner, she gives him both drumsticks because she knows he likes them best. When he makes blueberry pancakes for the kids Saturday morning, he’ll leave the blueberries out of hers because he knows she doesn’t like them. Although he’s not religious, he accompanies her to church each Sunday because it’s important to her. And although she’s not crazy about spending a lot of time with their relatives, she has pursued a friendship with Nathaniel’s mother and sisters because family matters so much to him.

If all of this sounds humdrum and unromantic, it’s anything but. Through small but important ways Olivia and Nathaniel are maintaining the friendship that is the foundation of their love. As a result, they have a marriage that is far more passionate than do couples who punctuate their lives together with romantic vacations and lavish anniversary gifts, but have fallen out of touch in their daily lives. Friendship fuels the flames of romance because it offers the best protection against feeling adversarial toward your spouse.”

Notice the change of focus? From conflict to non-conflict? From reactivity to proactivity? Causes one to rethink couple therapy, doesn’t it?

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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