It's Far From a Secret
The Gottman method of couples therapy is highly sought after as more people become familiar with Dr.s John and Julie Gottman and their research. In fact, over the years, I’ve noticed a sharp uptick of couples calling in specifically wanting Gottman therapy and/or a Certified Gottman therapist.
Even looking at search algorithms, it is clear that the Gottman method ranks above other couple therapy methodologies. It’s always a good thing when consumers are more educated, know what they’re looking for and where they want to invest their time and money. I wish I could say that’s all it takes to find excellent couples therapy. However, it requires a little bit more.
Tips to Identify the "Real" Gottman Therapist
Because of its popularity, many more therapists are claiming to offer Gottman Method therapy than is actually true. So, let me give you a few tips for how you can know if you’re getting “the real deal.”
- First of all, ask what level of training or certification the therapist has in the Gottman method.
There are three levels of training with increasing complexity.
Level 1 covers the research and assumptions of the Gottman Method most thoroughly and introduces some of the basic interventions.
Level 2 continues highlighting more of the research, including how to work with couples where trauma, addictions, infidelity, and domestic violence exist in the couples we see.
At Level 2, therapists are trained to assess for which couples with violence between them can be treated – situational DV – vs. which ones we need to refer out to individual therapy for safety reasons – characterological DV. I know of no other couples’ methodology that distinguishes between these types of volatile situations. Moreover, at Level 2, therapists also spend the bulk of the training doing breakouts in small groups to practice using the primary Gottman interventions.
Finally, at Level 3 training, there is a lengthy reading list to familiarize oneself with the depth of the Gottman research, and three days of experiential role plays incorporating the Gottman Method.
After completing Level 3, therapists decide if they want to enter a Certification track where they are mentored closely by a Gottman consultant, submit recordings of their sessions, receive feedback to refine their knowledge and application. They have to pass off as a clinically excellent therapist, as well as an excellent Gottman therapist, to be a Certified Gottman Therapist.
This process can take up to 2 years, typically. I personally used the information from Level 1 for about six years before taking Level 2. At the time, I was unaware there were additional levels offered (this was a LONG time ago!). I require the therapists who work for me to have at least Gottman Level 2 training and additional training for working with Couples in Addiction Recovery and Treating Affairs and Trauma.
With this level of training, a couple will receive excellent, above-the-grade therapy, and it just gets better with each level up.
2. Second, the Gottman Method has a very distinct assessment process. You need to receive the assessment in total for true Gottman therapy. This assessment consists of an initial joint session of 75-90 minutes, where the couple meets with the therapist to express their goals and desires for help.
It also includes an “Oral History Interview,” which is an in-depth conversation about the history of the couple’s relationship from the day they met until the present time. For the therapist, there are many factors we are watching and listening for to determine the couple’s strengths and areas of concern based on the research. An online assessment is sent to the couple to fill out separately, which takes about an hour. Some Certified Gottman therapists are also able to offer couples the “Love Lab” which allows couples to record 2 separate 10-minute conversations, which are analyzed by the Gottman lab and given specific feedback on their emotions and conflict styles.
Next, the therapist meets individually with each partner for about 50 minutes to get individual background information and assess individual needs, problems, and safety in the relationship.
Finally, the couple has a 75-90 minute “Summary and Treatment Planning” session with the therapist where all the information from the interviews, the online assessment, and Love Lab are distilled into an overview of strengths, problem areas, and a plan to move forward.
There is very little guesswork in the Gottman method, and couples have a clear picture of the therapy goals and treatment plan.
I find most of my couples find this structure and detail very reassuring and helpful. The couple is asked if this treatment plan is what they want to do and invited to continue with their therapist or if they would prefer a different person/route. This same assessment process is incorporated before beginning intervention for therapists who offer marathon therapy or intensives.
To know if you’re truly getting what you’re paying for, there are some basic assumptions of therapy that are unique to Gottman therapy. I can’t go over all of them, but a few important ones are these:
1. The Therapy is Primarily Dyadic
The therapist should be helping the couple to talk to each other as much as possible vs. talking to the therapist about their partner or problems. The more distressed the couple, the more difficult this is, but the therapist should continually invite the couple to “tell your partner”; or “can you say that to him/her?”. The purpose of this is to work our way out of a job. We want our couples to have a new experience of talking more effectively with one another and take it home.
2. We Don’t “Resolve” Emotions or Even a Lot of Problems
We teach couples how to manage both. What’s the difference? Managing emotions means all emotions are welcome, but not all behaviors are. There’s a difference between intense anger, sadness, or disappointment vs. criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Emotions are welcome; the destructive behaviors of the 4 Horsemen are not. But we will teach you what to do instead and how to replace destructive behaviors with more effective ones. We also know that not all problems are the same.
According to the research, 69% of what couples have conflict over is based on their differences in core needs, feelings, and personalities. We are not looking to eliminate these differences but to learn to honor, respect, and value them in one another. The goal then becomes continuing the conversation about these differences without hurting one another. Sure, compromises are reached along the way, but not at the expense of one partner or the other’s integrity.
3. It’s Not the Therapist’s Role to Soothe the Couple.
It is our job to teach couples how to self-soothe and regulate their emotions in order to be more present and available to one another. Initially, the therapist often takes a more active role in guiding this learning, but the goal is to step back and support the couple in doing this. This is the opposite of what many therapists do who try to keep emotions to a minimum in order to stay logical/rational. In reality, couples in pain are often intensely emotional and need to know there’s space for their emotions to be witnessed and validated. Again, this assumption exists to pass on to the couple as much knowledge and skill as possible in order to take it home and apply it, not to be dependent on the therapist to manage their emotions.
Finally, as Gottman therapists, we are intimately familiar with the importance of building friendship, creating shared meaning as a couple, supporting life dreams, as well as managing conflict. Let’s face it: most couples come to therapy needing help with their problems and conflict. But we know they will be more successful doing that if they also work on their friendship system and build something significant.
With betrayals, that entire system, illustrated by the Sound Relationship House, is demolished. But fortunately, we know intimately how to help couples rebuild marriage house #2 from the foundation up and restore trust and commitment. The Sound Relationship House is something all couples working with a Gottman therapist should be introduced to early in therapy and intimately familiar with by the time they leave therapy.
There’s so much more, but this at least gives you a way to assess if you are genuinely getting Gottman Method Couples Therapy and your money’s worth, or if a therapist is using a few of the exercises and interventions and trying to capitalize on the Gottman reputation. Some of my core values are honesty, integrity and transparency. I believe you should be getting exactly what you’re paying for and come out better for the experience. Excellent therapy is finally available to couples, even if you have to do a little homework to find it.