By Caralee Frederic, LCSW
How does The Gottman Method work in couples counseling?
This particular couple had many strengths in their relationship and it was a fun delight to congratulate them on how well they had done over the years in building a happy marriage.
Yet, they found themselves in the grip of a decades old pattern that they didn’t know how to change and which was becoming more hurtful with each round. They had tried everything they knew, and they had looked long and hard, reading, listening, applying, trying new things.
They were stuck and feeling discouraged, in spite of the deep love and affection they shared. As we moved through the assessment phase, the patterns rose to the surface where we could see the elements more clearly. There was some Criticism. And some Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
Once an argument had ensued, while their apologies were sincere, they didn’t feel like the fundamental elements changed. Trust was damaged. They didn’t know how to Repair and how to process the conflict effectively, to learn from it and change it for next time. There were some untapped deeper conversations needed to increase understanding of one another’s dreams and desires, before they could move to a true compromise that honored both of their core needs.
As with many of my couples, we first identified the 4 Horsemen to eliminate:
Contempt ( of which they had very little),
We talk about the skills to replaced those behaviors:
By introducing them to these concepts, I could help them identify and replace as bad behaviors as they popped up in sessions. And then we got to work on those old patterns.
They learned to use the Aftermath of a Fight/Regrettable Incident to analyze what went wrong in conflicts old and new.
They used the Dreams within Conflict exercise to dive deep into understanding their partner’s position.
They used the Gottman compromise model which only works when the core needs of both people are understood, honored and taken into account.
In the process, some unresolved traumas that were casting shadows into their marriage were unearthed and addressed to the point of understanding and increased compassion. And then, they no longer needed my help! Ah, the bittersweet goodbyes to people I have come to care for deeply, who have accomplished their goal in meeting with me, and are ready to get back to their lives, more effective and more connected than when they first came.
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Another one of my memorable couples: A blended family with his, hers and ours in kids. Trauma from abuse, abandonment, and substance abuse in the past prior to their marriage. Financial stress and strain. Dreams that seemed obliterated in the day-to-day struggle of survival. We worked on and off over several years. When therapy became just one more stressor, we took a break. When they had more to give, or more pain than they could manage, they returned.
And since I had the very thorough Gottman assessment from them, I could easily pick up where we left off each time, check in with them about what still applied, or what had changed, and hit the ground running.
Early in our work together, it was like pulling teeth to have them identify and share qualities they liked and admired about one another. There was so much pain. But they were terrified to be without one another and really wanted to make this work.
They were both soft spoken in my office. Accounts of less softness at home were shared. As they came to trust the process, apply the principles and use the tools offered, feisty emotions would flare up with increased honesty.
We could now begin to talk about and learn to manage such hard emotions as anger, disappointment, betrayal, fear. In our last session, we tried the Fondness and Admiration exercise again. Same instructions: choose 3-4 qualities you like/admire in your partner and tell them what it is, with an example of when they demonstrated that quality.
They couldn’t stop.They didn’t want to stop! We spent the bulk of a 90 minute session with them going back and forth, sharing nearly every positive quality on the list given to them with real life examples of where it applied. There were still the hard things. Blended family issues never went away, nor did past traumas or financial stressors.
It was sacred ground I was on that night in my office, as a witness to the growth of their love for one another, of their individual growth, as well as that as a couple. It was our last session. And it was a privilege to be a part of their process. A process made possible in teaching them to apply the Gottman principles and skills to their relationship.
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Finally, there are those couples who surface in my office from time to time, who really are not ready nor able to do couples work. Typically, we go through the 4 session assessment process: 1) The Gottman online assessments, 2) couples session at intake, 3) individual sessions, and 4) finally a summary session to pull it all together and identify a plan of action.
Some couples are dealing with not just situational violence but a type of violence that makes couples work contra-indicated. Within those 4 session, I know I need to refer them out for individual therapy and sometimes to help one of the partners consider an initial safety plan. This decreases my liability risk in being able to quickly assess whom I can help and whom I cannot.
Other times, there is a huge difference between the couple in the commitment level to doing the work of couples therapy. This also surfaces early in the assessment process and we can then address the ambivalence right away, rather than proceed on false assumptions, wasting precious time, energy and resources.
The assessment process is so valuable in identifying what the next steps need to be, even if it’s not to continue in couples therapy. One of my biggest frustrations is hearing stories from couples who have languished in ineffective or even harmful therapies for years with therapists who have inadequate training to work with couples.
Given our ethical commitment to “do no harm,” we have the obligation to offer the best information and tools available to each and every couple. The Gottman Method training assists in this endeavor phenomenally well.
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