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Unlocking Healthy Relationships: A Guide to Gottman Method

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If you’ve done any couples therapy or spent time researching how to better your relationships on your own, you’ve probably heard of Gottman Therapy. John Gottman has been one of the most prolific researchers on couples therapy for decades, having authored over two hundred scholarly articles and more than two dozen books. With such a wealth of information, it can feel overwhelming when wondering where to start learning from his work. Today, I want to go over some basic Gottman Therapy concepts that you can start putting into practice in your own life and relationship. 

Discovering the Power of Gottman Method Couples Therapy

People always give knowing looks when they say things like “relationships are work” but many people don’t actually know what that work entails. Most people chalk it up to thinking that sometimes couples fight, or that things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. While it’s true that relationships have challenges unless you’re approaching them in a healthy way you’re not “doing the work” you’re just fighting. The work relationships take is about building and maintaining connection while handling conflict in a productive way that also moves your relationship forward. Let’s look at a couple of ways Gottman therapy approaches these things. 

Building Strong Connections: The Love Maps of Gottman Therapy

Navigating Conflict with Gottman Therapy: The Four Horsemen of Relationship Doom

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Next, let’s look at some of Gottman Therapy’s ideas about conflict. Conflict is challenging and unavoidable in relationships. Unfortunately, just having the fight isn’t necessarily putting in the work. For all of us, there is always growing room and work to be done in how we do conflict. The first concept to look at here is how we start conflict. When conflict starts with an attack, the other person immediately gets defensive, even if the attacking partner’s frustration is justified. Gottman calls this the “harsh startup.” Softening your startup can be hard work. When we’re upset about something we want to make our frustration heard. However, a harsh startup accomplishes the opposite of this by putting your partner on the defensive, where they are unwilling to listen. A good way to know if you or your partner are using a harsh startup, or to avoid doing so, is by looking for the presence of Gottman’s four horsemen
These horsemen are harbingers of doom for any relationship whether you’re seeing them in conflict or anywhere else. These may come up for any couple, but if they do so consistently, it spells the end of the relationship the vast majority of the time. The Horsemen are: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Let’s look at these four and how they come up in conflict. 

  • Criticism: You’re allowed to have complaints in a relationship, and you should address them. A healthy complaint is about a person’s behavior. “I’m upset that you didn’t help with the dishes last night.” An unhealthy criticism is about someone’s character. ” You’re so lazy, you never help out with dishes.” Criticism is a hallmark of a harsh startup and will always lead to defensiveness.
  • Contempt: Gottman names contempt the most dangerous of the four. Contempt means looking down on your partner. This is one of the most disconnecting feelings you can have and should be addressed right away. If you’re looking for contempt in a harsh startup it will sound like sarcasm, condescension, and a sense of superiority.
  • Defensiveness: This horseman is about making a partner’s complaint their fault and not your own. While the goal is to protect yourself from blame this just invalidates your partner’s concern and makes them feel unheard, which ultimately escalates the conflict. Being defensive means the conflict can’t progress. Again, by discussing behaviors and not character we can make people less defensive.
  • Stonewalling: This tends to be the final horseman to show up. When conflict is painful and unproductive due to the previous three horsemen, it’s easy for one partner to just check out. Why engage in that kind of conflict anyway? Unfortunately, stonewalling means nothing can be resolved, problems don’t fix themselves.

Putting in the Work: Tips for Conflict Resolution and Relationship Enhancement

If you can work to keep these horsemen out of your conflict, you’re really putting in the work. One tip I like to give people is to ask themselves what they really want when they engage in conflict. I think the number one answer is to be heard, and to have the conflict resolved. While it may feel satisfying to be sarcastic or petty, these things aren’t helping you accomplish what you really want. Reminding yourself that it’s in your own best interest to avoid these horsemen can help avoid them.

Your Journey Starts Here: Recommended Reading for Gottman Marriage Counseling

Gottman has a mountain of good literature and we’ll be back to look at more concepts from his work! If you want to read about any of this on your own, I highly recommend “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman. It’s a great place to start putting in the work.

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