The Ultimate Couples’ Guide to Gottman Therapy [2021]

By Stassi Betcher

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In the 1970s, Dr. John Gottman (a mathematician and statistical researcher) studied couples through interviews and video observations in the homes of the participants.  

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Gottman Therapy At A Glance

Gottman followed over 3,000 couples from 5 to 20 years and what he identified were the key components to a successful, happy marriage and what was ultimately the biggest predictor of divorce. John Gottman got SO good at this, within a few minutes of observation he is able to predict divorce with 94% accuracy! 

within a few minutes of observation, he is able to predict divorce with 94% accuracy

This is amazing and terrifying! 😅

But even better, his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman was (and still is) a psychologist. Together, they have been working for 40+ years to remedy the core areas of success and failure. 

With their findings, they opened The Gottman Institute for couples, therapists, and self-help enthusiasts. The best part is, Gottman Therapy is successful regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background.

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So—there are 4 big no no’s that will break your relationship and 9 principles that will lead you to ultimate happiness and bliss!

  1. The Four Horseman 💔
  2. The Sound Relationship House 💞 
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The Four Horseman is named after the New Testament and the four horseman of the apocalypse and are the 4 biggest predictors of divorce:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt 
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling 

 

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse [4 Biggest Predictors of Divorce]

 

1) Criticism

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👆 👆 👆  Dan’s right!

Criticism is most common and shows up as verbally attacking one’s personality or character. 

Most of the time, criticism shows up as “you statements,” with words like always and never that imply their partner has a consistent personality flaw. 

This can look like, 

“you always mess up on cleaning the floors, you’re always so thoughtless.” 

“you’re always running late, why are you so inconsiderate? Can’t you think about how it affects me?”

2) Contempt

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Contempt is a bit meaner than criticism and is considered the worst of the four horsemen. John has found it to be THE NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR OF DIVORCE.

Here, the person presents as morally superior and aggressively puts down their partner from that position. The results can be cruel and are often due to unresolved negative feelings towards their partner. 

This can look like, speaking rudely, putting their partner down, mocking, sarcasm, hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and disrespectful body language like eye-rolling or intense glaring (sneering). 

The Gottman Institute puts it best:

“…contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority…simply put, it says, “I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.””

3) Defensiveness

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Defensiveness often comes from criticism and contempt—I mean, HOW COULD IT NOT?! 

But everyone on the planet has been defensive, and most typically, a relationship on the rocks has defensive communication. 

Here’s the issue: partners who become defensive struggle because they want a counterattack to a complaint. Defensiveness is a way of pushing away responsibility and blaming your partner. 

Ultimately saying, “it’s not me, it’s you.”

 

4) Stonewalling

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Stonewalling is shutting down and checking out of your discussion or relationship. Essentially, during a discussion or arguments, the listener withdraws, avoids interaction, and detaches from emotion.

The listener here feels overwhelmed or becomes flooded and is unable to process their thoughts. So, they build a wall between themselves and their partner as a sort of protection. 

This one is tricky, because it’s often a psychological response and can have a “fight or flight” reaction. It can be hard for couples to work this out independently…but wait…problem solving solutions are coming next!

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Alright, here’s the deal. The stuff we’re talking about here is big, and can be marriage saving or marriage breaking. 

But DON’T PANIC! I’ve got the solutions for you below! 

Cures & Solutions! 

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Cure for Criticism

First, address conflicts when they’re small—don’t wait and let seep out as negative comments or criticisms. 

Here’s the secret to defeat criticism: 

USE “I STATEMENTS” AND ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED

People can only hear and receive your needs when you convey information in a way that feels safe. 


❌ “you’re always running late, why are you so inconsiderate? Can’t you think about how it affects me?”


“My feelings get hurt when you’re running late. I feel my time and needs are not being considered, could we talk about how this affects me?”

The easiest way to solve this is to use “I” instead of “you.” I’ll let you know this isn’t as easy for me—so I rely on my husband to provide me feedback so I can catch my own anxiety and correct my words as they’re coming out. 

 

Cure for Contempt 

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There are PROVEN REMEDIES to contempt—the coolest part about Gottman Method is it’s the most researched therapy for couples. 

Short-Term Cure:

DESCRIBE YOUR FEELINGS AND NEEDS ABOUT SMALL ISSUES.

You gotta start small, this will not be solved overnight, so start with the practice of expressing your feelings and needs. 

Avoid “you statements,” and be mindful of ways you could accidentally make your partner feel blamed or attacked. 

The Long-Term Cure: 

SPEAK and ACT FONDLY

APPRECIATE YOUR PARTNER 

and ACKNOWLEDGE POSITIVES 

This creates a reciprocal relationship that leads to patterns of “leaning in” rather than away. 

This sort of relationship doesn’t happen overnight, but if you imagine contempt is a virus, daily intention and small acts of appreciation and fondness will be the medicine to boost the health of your relationship “immune system.” 

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Cure for Defensiveness

It feels SOOO GOOD to be RIGHT. But in a healthy relationship—that option is OFF THE TABLE!

To stop defensiveness in its tracks:

ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SITUATION

Even if you’re only responsible for part of the conflict, you must join in the solution. Take responsibility and become a team in solving the issue. 

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Cure for Stonewalling 

Remember, stonewalling happens because of emotional flooding. So this one can be tricky to manage alone. 

The key to stonewalling is:

TAKE A BREAK,

……….COOL DOWN,

REVISIT THE DISCUSSION LATER.

All of the cures need teamwork, however, this one needs your partner’s buy-in to be patient with your body’s physiological flight response, and your brain’s psychological overwhelm.

When you ask for a break, or have a “safe word,” your partner can interpret your need for a break as avoidance. That is why it’s key to have their buy-in AND your commitment to coming back to the problem when your brain and body have cooled down.

OKAY WE DID IT! We made it through the four predictors of divorce, The Four Horsemen. Now it’s time to look at The Sound Relationship House—did you forget about it? 

When you see a Gottman Certified Therapist you and your partner go through an extensive assessment where the therapist will pinpoint high risk areas and provide remedies. 

 

If you’d like to explore other therapies, Regain.us does a great job of describing different options.

However, if you’re ready to continue on–throughout your treatment together, you, your partner, and your therapist will go through The Sound Relationship House. 

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Want a therapist ASAP? Look here!

The Sound Relationship House

Imagine a home with 9 levels and until you climb to the next floor, you won’t be able to learn what’s there. 

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  • Floor 1: Build Love Maps
  • Floor 2: Share Fondness and Admiration
  • Floor 3: Turn Towards
  • Floor 4: The Positive Perspective
  • Floor 5: Manage Conflict
  • Floor 6: Make Life Dreams Come True
  • Floor 7: Create Shared Meaning

 

Floor 1: Build Love Maps

A love map is an act of deeply understanding your partner’s inner world. 

Essentially, it’s being able to describe your partners wants, needs, their best-friends, childhood experiences, pet-peeves, what their day to day looks like, what stresses them out, how they like to relax, and more. 

A marriage is based on a solid foundation of intimacy, vulnerability, and shared values.

Ideally, in your relationship you two know each other better than anyone else, when you build each other’s love maps you are putting down a solid foundation of acceptance and understanding. 

 

Floor 2: Share Fondness and Admiration

This one is sooo important! Sharing admiration and fondness is essential to lifelong connection and is the cure to contempt (the #1 killer of love!). 

This simple act increases affection and respect in partnerships, it’s a friendship skill that acts as protection for the foundation of the house. 

Fondness is affection, however, unless it’s shared out loud it’s doesn’t work for protecting the foundation. Even more, it ONLY WORKS when you add a why. The Gottman Institute gives examples like:

👉🏽 “I’m proud of the way you _____.”

👉🏽 “I’m attracted to your _____ (inside and out).”

👉🏽 “I am impressed that you _____.”

👉🏽 “I like how you _____.”

Admiration vocalizing the characteristics of your partner that you appreciate. 

Appreciation is key in this step. Saying “thank you” should be in your daily vocabulary, not just about what your partner does but who they are

A great practice that the Gottman Method introduced is an activity called, “I appreciate…” Think of an adjective that can describe your partner and then find a time in the last week that your partner engaged in it. 

Make a commitment together in sharing with one another three times a week. 

 “I appreciate that you are _____. I noticed it last week when _____.” 

In the next phase of this, you two engage together about why you chose the adjective. Let’s say you chose “relaxed,” it was important to you, express and explore together why relaxed holds value.  

 

Floor 3: Turn Towards

You and your partner have a secret language, direct or indirect communication to seek attention, support, and comfort from your partner. These asks are called “bids for connection.”

When your partner meets your needs they’re turning towards the bid. 

So if you get off the phone with your Mom and look stressed, your partner can come over and hug you. It’s the implicit communication that makes you feel seen and cared for. 

If one person in the relationship turns away, or worse, against a bid for connection the results can be catastrophic!  

For instance, in a fight your partner goes to touch your leg to comfort (this is called a repair attempt)—you pull your leg away or move seats, you are rejecting connection. This action cuts much deeper than just in that conflict, it shatters the entire house. 

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Floor 4: The Positive Perspective

This one is explained in the title—you and your partner see each other and your marriage positively. Basically, you feel on the same team and give each other the benefit of the doubt when there are mistakes or issues. 

However, if you have a negative perspective, it distorts your ability to see your partner clearly, which ends up escalating and causing more problems that would otherwise not occur. 

Gottman has outlined 3 ways to promote a positive perspective:

  1. Let your partner influence you

This means you are willing to side with your partner’s preferences or perspectives (Wife hates veggie pizza (*ahem, me*), Husband considers her preferences and orders something else, *thanks Kev*)

2. Increase your fondness and admiration

Described on floor #3

  1. Turn toward bids for emotional connection

Described on floor #3

 

Floor 5: Manage Conflict

So let’s first start with the basics, Gottman’s research uncovered 3 types of conflict:

  1. Solvable
  2. Perpetual
  3. Gridlocked

By context, I imagine you understand what these are. You can read more here, however, 

Solvable conflicts are situational and do not hold any deeper meaning or issue, a solution can be solved and maintained. 

Perpetual conflicts are around fundamental differences in personality or lifestyle needs. ALL COUPLES HAVE PERPETUAL CONFLICT, one couple’s problem may be perpetual while someone else’s is solvable and vise versa. These are conflicts that the couple will return to over and over. 

Gottman’s 40 years of research reports that 

69% of all relationship conflict is perpetual

Gridlocked conflicts are basically perpetual problems that were handled poorly and now are avoided and/or uncomfortable. When a gridlocked problem comes up, the couple goes around on a carousel and never finds a solution. 

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So now that we have that baseline, managing conflict comes with three steps:

  1.  Accept your partners influence

Described on floor #2

  1. Ask yourself: is it solvable or perpetual?

Described above

  1. Self-soothe when you feel yourself heating up in a disagreement 

Coping strategies to remain calm (take a walk, breathing exercises)

 

Floor 6: Make Life Dreams Come True

One of the best things about a partnership is the deep support you receive from one another by encouraging you in your goals and giving the help so you reach them (always thankful for you Kevin!)

This one is intimate—it can be plans to pay off debt, encouraging your spouse to go back to school, or starting that YouTube Channel 😘 

It’s all important, and it creates safety in the relationship that you can count on your partner no matter what. 

 

Floor 7: Create Shared Meaning

The very last floor, Creating Shared Meaning, is the “next level” version of the Love Maps on floor one. 

Specifically, you two create and develop an internal culture in your partnership. Here, you focus on traditions and rituals that promote shared identity (special activities for birthdays, Friday ice cream night from your favorite shop, Sunday coffees). 

This is known as Rituals of Connection and the process of creating them define you as a unit. Gottman has developed 3 key components to Rituals of Connection:

  1. Create a habit of reunion every day.

This is believed to be the MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN YOUR MARRIAGE. It’s often overlooked which promotes loss of excitement. 

So if you do one new thing from this—create a greeting ritual!

  1. Set aside two minutes of undistracted communication every day.

Gottman has promoted two minutes of undistracted communication is likely more important than spending an unfocused week together as a couple. 

Be sure to do NOTHING else but pay attention to one another—even eating food is a distraction!

  1. Practice an appreciation ritual every day.

Described on floor #2

 

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We made it through all the floors—go you! We just got the weight bearing pillars to go, Trust and Commitment. 

 

Pillar 1 – Trust

Trust is a hard one—it’s not just about your partner, it’s about trusting your own judgment. 

Trust is about believing your partner has your best interest at heart.

Gottman provides 7 ways to build trust within yourself and your relationship:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings and practice being vulnerable in small steps. 
  2. Be honest and communicate about key issues in your relationship.
  3. Challenge mistrustful thoughts.
  4. Trust your intuition and instincts.
  5. Assume your partner has good intentions.
  6. Listen to your partner’s side of the story.
  7. Practice having a recovery conversation after an argument.

 

Pillar 2 – Commitment

Commitment is the act of pledging love for one another and working together throughout your lifetime in making that love grow. 

Both trust and commitment are an act of faith in each other that you both want to stay together.

If you would like more detail on how the therapy is conducted, HelloRelish.com has you covered.

Whether that’s the daily act of a  “6 second kiss” as your daily ritual of connection, add deposits to your Emotional Bank Account, or 2 minutes of undivided attention, long lasting relationships take intention, mindfulness, and a bit of fun! 😘

I hope this skyrockets you to the next level of your marriage and growth together—if you’re looking for a couples therapist, seek out a Gottman Specialist near you!

About The Author

About The Author

Stassi is a Licensed Professional Counselor serving ambitious womxn in the Portland-metro area. She believes connection is the driving force to healing and therapy creates the building blocks for change.

Stassi got her Bachelor's Degree at the University of Oregon in Psychology. She then attended Columbia University where she earned a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling, a Master of Education in Psychological Counseling, and specialized in Multicultural Counseling.

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