Recently I have had several couples come to see me after seeing other therapists. They were looking for someone who would not harshly judge one partner.
Initially, when some couples come to therapy they do indeed want the therapist to validate them and to tell their partner that they are wrong. They want the therapist to fix the partner. Although a satisfying hope, this doesn’t set the groundwork for healing the relationship.
I tell couples that they have a right to expect that I will focus on the relationship and not side with one or the other. I ask them to call me on it, if they think I am siding with one of them. I make it clear that we create the therapeutic conversation together and I encourage them, to be frank with me if they are disappointed, hurt or disagree with something I have said.
The Gottman Method depends on both people feeling understood, supported and safe with the therapist and eventually each other. Each session, even the difficult ones, should be a positive emotional experience for both partners. Hopefully, that will lead the way back to the friendship they once had. It doesn’t mean that the couple doesn’t do in-depth and sometimes painful work, but they should feel supported and safe. In the Gottman Method, we try to have a large part of the therapy be in the form of the couple talking to each other with the therapist coaching them. This lays down experiential tracks for effective communication and prepares the couple to do without the therapist. This is different from other forms of therapy which in which each person talks to the therapist.
If one partner feels that the therapist is picking on them, it will be totally understandable for them to be defensive. One of the goals of therapy is to help the couple learn to explore their gridlocked issues. Attack and the natural response of defensiveness impede the couple from being able to tell each other the truth about their experience. 69% of a couple’s conflicts are perpetual, meaning that they will never go away. They can learn to live more softly with the perpetual issues. They can learn to understand what is driving their partner to take an oppositional stand about an issue. This opens the door for acceptance and some compromise which allows the couple to accept this difference. Couples learn to dialogue with empathy rather than judgement. It is useful for couples to remember that Gottman’s research found that every long-term couple will have 69% perpetual issues. If partners divorce and go with other lovers, they will continue to have 69% perpetual problems but they will be different.
A cornerstone of the Gottman work is productive conflict which is accomplished by soft start up. This is a method where the person speaking talks about their experience and what they want. They reference a piece of the partner’s behavior or lack of it. They do not use “You”. They do not criticize the personhood of the partner but choose a specific incident. They use “I” and talk about their experience and what they want. The statements are about them. Then the partner is taught to paraphrase and validate what their loved one has said. It is important to remember that validation is not agreement, it is simply a way to let the other know that their perspective makes sense and is understandable. Gottman’s 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work explains more about the Gottman Method Couples Therapy.