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John Gottman Proposes Revolutionary New Form of Couple Therapy - or Does He?

by Milton Spett

For 25 years John Gottman has been one of the gurus of the “communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution” school of couple therapy. In his new book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999), Gottman asserts that he has disavowed his previous work and the work of all other couple therapists, and he has proposed a revolutionary new form of couple therapy. His new approach is to work primarily on increasing positive couple interactions and each partner’s focus on the other’s positive qualities. "Successful conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages succeed," he says on page 11. "The foundation of my approach is to strengthen the friendship that is at the heart of any marriage" (p.46). Gottman now claims that increasing the positive interactions makes communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution easy or unnecessary. If the two partners feel positively toward each other, they will have no trouble resolving their resolvable conflicts, and they will be accepting of their unresolvable conflicts. Gottman proposes three principles for implementing his “increase positive interactions” approach to couple therapy:

1. Know each other. Learn all about each other’s likes, dislikes, wishes, hopes, dreams, etc.

2. Focus on each other’s positive qualities, positive feelings for each other, and the good times you have shared with each other.

3. Interact frequently, tell each other about your day, your thoughts, your experiences. Romance is fueled not by candlelight dinners, but by interacting with your partner in numerous little ways.

But the book title refers to seven principles, not three, what about the other four? Oddly, Gottman’s last four principles are the traditional communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution principles with cute new names:

4. “Let your partner influence you.” Translation: share power.

5. “Solve your solvable problems.” Translation: Communicate respectfully, use “I” statements, criticize behavior without criticizing your partner, take a break when you’re getting too upset, and compromise. Gottman asserts that in both happy and unhappy marriages, more than 80% of the time the wife brings up marital conflicts while the husband tries to avoid discussing them. [This finding supports the hypothesis that 80% of all men are pigs.]

6. “Overcome gridlock.” Translation: understand your partner’s underlying feelings which are preventing resolution of the conflict.

7. “Create shared meaning.” Translation: share values, attitudes, interests, traditions.

At the end of each chapter, Gottman includes numerous tests and exercises for assessing and implementing each of his seven principles in the reader’s marriage.

Is This Really a Revolution?

Gottman claims he is proposing a revolutionary new approach to couple therapy, but in fact he is only modifying the emphasis. Increasing positive interactions has long been a staple of behavioral couple therapy. Perhaps the best known example is Richard Stuart’s technique of “caring days.” In Helping Couples Change, (1980), Stuart advises each member of the couple to list at least 18 small, positive behaviors the partner could perform to demonstrate caring. Stuart then asks the partner to implement five of these behaviors each day. In Chapter 3 of the classic A Couple’s Guide to Communication, (1976) Gottman himself includes the following advice: “Give sincere and honest appreciation,” “Be courteous and considerate,” and “Express interest in your spouse’s activities.” So even for Gottman, the focus on increasing positive interactions is more an evolution than a revolution.

How Gottman Developed His Seven Principles

Gottman refers to his work as “innovative research, revolutionary findings” (p.7). He developed his seven principles by recruiting couples, asking them to discuss a conflict in their relationship, and videotaping these discussions. He found that happily married couples used the seven principles in discussing their conflicts, while distressed couples did not. He concluded that these seven principles were therefore the cause of the successful marriages. But as we learned in undergraduate statistics, “correlation does not imply causation.” The finding that happily married couples practice these seven principles does not mean that these couples are happy because they practice the seven principles. And it certainly does not mean that distressed marriages can be improved by teaching the partners to practice the seven principles.

The Scientific Basis of Gottman’s Program

Gottman’s claim that his seven principles are based on scientific research appears to be premature. “Before the breakthroughs my research provided…there really hasn’t been any rigorous scientific data about why some marriages succeed and others flop” (p. 3). “We put our workshops to the test by doing an extensive nine-month follow-up of 640 couples. I’m happy to report an astoundingly low relapse rate. The nationwide relapse rate for standard marital therapy is 30 to 50 percent. Our rate is 20 percent” (p. 19). Gottman makes these claims without reporting any of the standard techniques of outcome research: no control group, no random assignment to treatments, no blind assessment of outcome. Since Gottman wrote this book for the general public, I emailed him, asking if he had published more details about his research in a professional journal. He responded, “Not yet. So far 1070 couples have taken the two-day workshop and we have been monitoring its success informally. We have begun that study already in my lab, but it will be two years before we have the data.”

An Alternate Hypothesis: Individual Psychopathology is the Primary Cause of Couple Discord

I believe that individual psychopathology is the most important cause of both couple distress and the failure to practice Gottman’s seven principles. The most common individual problems that cause couple distress are:

1. Constantly criticizing your partner; the tendency to feel criticized when you are not being criticized, and emotional overreaction when you are being criticized.

2. The inability to communicate positive emotion; the tendency to feel unloved.

3. Being domineering and unable to see others’ viewpoints; unassertiveness, overconcern with pleasing your partner, and the resulting tendency to feel obligated and controlled.

I also believe that overcoming these individual psychological problems is the most effective method for helping most couples. Of course most patients who present for couple therapy are resistant to viewing their unhappiness as due to their own psychopathology. They prefer to view their distress as due to their partner’s pathology, or to the lack of “communication.” So the couple therapist must treat each partner’s individual pathology while the other partner is present, without challenging their view that they have couple, rather than individual, problems.

A Case Example

In a recent marital case I treated, the wife felt neglected and unloved because her husband spent a great deal of time at his job and doing home improvement projects. He felt pressured and angry that she was trying to control him, and “badgering” him to spend more time with her. Their prior couple therapy taught them conflict resolution techniques to work out behavioral compromises. For example, he would spend half an hour alone with her every evening. But these conflict resolution interventions were not effective because they did not address the individual pathology that cause his feeling controlled and her feeling unloved. He still felt controlled and she still felt unloved, and so they fought over which half hour he would spend with her, and whether or not his mind was elsewhere during their half hour together.

One of my interventions was to point out that she erroneously interpreted his involvement with work and home improvement projects as meaning that he didn’t care about her. She accepted this concept, and she began to view his other involvements as due to his obsessiveness and perfectionism, rather than to a lack of caring for her. She stopped becoming upset when he worked late and, as a result, he felt less pressured and spent more time with her. His psychological problem was that he felt obligated to do what she wanted, and it was his own tendency to feel obligated that created his resentment and his feeling that she was trying to control him. Their marriage improved dramatically as a result of these individual interventions, with no work on either conflict resolution or increasing positive interactions.

Conclusion

In spite of his questionable science, Gottman may have a point. It is certainly important to focus couples on their positive interactions. And it may be that if a couple can increase their positive interactions, everything else will change. To evaluate his theory, Gottman should perform some real outcome research. In addition to a no-treatment control group, one therapy group could be based on traditional couple therapy, another on Gottman’s seven principles, and another on Gottman’s first three principles, the ones that truly operationalize his concept of increasing positive interactions. And if Gottman really wants to discover the most effective interventions for resolving couple distress, he might include a final group which addresses each partner’s individual pathology.

2004 NJ-ACT. All rights reserved.
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