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Gottman Couples Counselling

16 Ultimate Gottman Couples Counselling Concepts

When couples decide to embark on couples counselling, they often hear about a method of counselling called Gottman Couples Counselling. 

Dr. John and Julie Gottman are world-renowned for their work on marriage stability and divorce prediction based on forty years of research with thousands of couples. John is the author or co-author of over 200 published academic articles and more than 40 books. 

His focus is a scientifically based research approach and aims to assist couples to improve communication and increase their level of understanding, empathy, connectedness, intimacy and interpersonal growth by identifying and addressing the defences that prevent effective communication.  Observation and analysis of couple conflict is a key intervention to disarm conflicting verbal communication.  

There are couples’ counsellors exclusively trained in The Gottman Method and it involves a comprehensive process of questionnaires to fill in.  Essentially it is a systemised approach rather than a tailored approach drawing from wider interventions/couples therapy orientations. 

I prefer to use a tailored integrative approach when counselling couples and I am examining how much tolerance of discomfort/pain for growth each person has.  

Some couples want to overhaul their whole relationship and are asking the big questions of life; some want to work on a specific issue and others want some overlaying strategies to tweak a few things.  Based on your goals and your capacity for change, I use a mix of interventions. 

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That said, below highlights some of the key concepts from the Gottman method and I encourage couples to review these and pinpoint specific things they might like to focus on:

  • Seek support early

According to Gottman, the average couple waits six years before seeking professional assistance for their difficulties, yet, half of break-ups occur within the first seven years.  This finding, therefore, suggests that couples often delay for too long seeking help and if they worked on their relationship earlier, they could prevent and manage many of the areas that could lead to break-up.  


  • Have high standards for each other

The most successful couples, with a healthy relationship are those who decide from the start of their relationship that they will not accept hurtful behaviour and hold each other to operating out of the best of themselves.  We often do this for other people in our life, and at work, but then don’t extend the same standards at home.


  • Focus on positives

Gottman couples training

Gottman is mathematical and he likes ratios.  As a guideline he says the ratio between positive and negative interactions should be 5:1. One of the strategies when discussing problems, is to make at least five positive statements about your partner to every negative one. A good relationship should have a rich, positive environment where you tell your partner the good things.


  • Accept your partner’s influence

Whether a partner can genuinely review and consider making changes or adaptations based on their partner’s ideas can determine if couples get stuck in gridlock and how their conflict style plays out. When someone always has to be right or resentfully concedes or engages in passive aggressive behaviour it suggests they have problems accepting other’s influence and a healthy growth-based relationship is hard to sustain.


  • Perpetual Problems & Gridlock

Due to differences in personality, needs, and definition of self,  perpetual problems can’t be solved but can be managed through dialogue.  Gridlock occurs when there is no dialogue, or the dialogue escalates to a level where the same issues surface without resolution.  

The goal is to move perpetual problems into productive dialogue to gain an understanding of the core values that drive why a person cannot change their perspective. Examples include issues such as spiritual views versus atheism; work ethic versus value placed on relaxation; financial positions such as ‘live for now’ versus ‘saving for the future’.  

Perpetual problems and gridlocked issues can be hard to explore yourself because couples get ‘stuck in a rut’. This is where I can contain the dynamic and keep discussions logical and regulated to explore deeper meanings for the positions each person holds. After practising these conversations in therapy couples are learning how to have productive dialogue.


  • Solvable Problems

Identifying what is solvable conflict i.e where compromise and negotiation can be reached because moving from a preferred position is not so core to identity that allowances can be made. This is where the couple can use problem solving techniques including: softened start-up; repair and de-escalation, flooding and self-soothing (a technique I called circuit breaking), learning to speak using ‘I messages’ rather than blame messages and another technique called ‘bookending’, accepting influence and compromise (if that doesn’t take away from operating out of authentic self).


  • Regulation of Conflict

Couples who know how to exit an argument or repair a situation before it gets out of control learn to do conflict well.  It is not about having conflict, it’s about doing conflicts and repair better.  Repair techniques include humour, displaying physical affection and understanding, emphasising that you are a team and will solve problems together, and offering signs of appreciation for your partner. In particularly heated arguments, it is usually helpful to take a 20-minute break and approach the topic again when both partners are calm. 

In sessions, as the dynamic between a couple emerges, we can examine and change how you behave in conflict: attack and defend; avoid or deny; or self-disclose. I also look out for the  ‘4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.  This is why I encourage clients to “bring it”, meaning, I don’t want them to come and edit or be on their best behaviour.  I need to see what actually happens for them and play a role in facilitating and guiding the interaction, learning on the go and resolving conflict. 


  • Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Identifying and managing the most corrosive form of negativity and communication styles in a relationship:  criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.


  • Bids for Connection

A bid for connection is a question, gesture, look or touch that says “I want to feel connected to you” (verbal and nonverbal) including turning toward; turning against; or turning away.  It is helpful to examine how bids for connection are made, if each partner recognises when bids are being made and how they respond.


  • Soften your ‘start up’ and Bookending

Gottman couples therapy training

When approaching difficult conversations, it is important to learn how not to begin by making critical and contemptuous comments and using blame statements – this is how arguments often begin. Bringing up problems gently and without blame is more effective.  

This is where using ‘I messages is important to explain what you are feeling and experiencing 

e.g. “I feel embarrassed when we socialise and a lot of alcohol is involved.  Sometimes how you speak to me feels like a put down. I want to leave or feel on edge like I have to defend myself or just take it”.  

That is different to  “You are so nasty and inconsiderate and you put me down.  I hate socialising because you’re a drunk and an embarrassment!”.  

The other partner then ‘bookends’ (a method developed by my Supervisor Peter Janetzki).  After listening with the intent to understand, you simply repeat back what you heard from your partner’s perspective (not adding judgment, sarcasm or invalidating statements)

 e.g. “So if I understand, you are saying that when alcohol is involved you feel I treat you differently and experience that as an embarrassing put down in front of other people making it hard to enjoy socialising”.  

Then the initiating partner either further expands or confirms what was repeated back.  If there is a misunderstanding there is an opportunity to clarify.  After understanding is reached, it is then the turn for the other partner to use I messages to explain what’s happening for them from their perspective or to apologise and make suggestions on how to change things. This process goes back and forth to fully explore concerns both ways to gain understanding and resolution.

This change of communication slows down potential escalation, encourages taking ownership of your own emotion and behaviour and seeing things from the other’s perspective. It is a collaborative dialogue that tries to understand rather than blaming and point scoring. It also encourages you to operate out of your adult and better self.


  • Edit yourself

It is not necessary to voice every critical thought when discussing difficult topics with your partner. Give them some grace and kindly raise the behaviour and stick with the main concern rather than a list of endless mistakes.  Also, stick with outlining behaviour rather than attributing it to character and turning it into a character assassination rather than problematic behaviours you are experiencing.


  • Emotional Family Heritage

Identifying how the family of origin deals with emotions and whether there is high confrontation;  dismissing;  disapproving; exacerbating/dramatising or avoidant ways of dealing with emotions; versus other healthier styles such as coaching, collaboration and compromise. 

I extend Gottman’s framework here to also explore the wider family system and what roles the person plays including Karpman’s Drama Triangle (Perpetrator, Rescuer and Victim) and other types of roles that are often played in a family system such as the scapegoat/black sheep, hero/heroine, lost child, cheerleader, mediator, switchboard, power broker, truth teller, clown, nurturer, cheerleader and thinker.  Often the roles we play in family of origin are a default position played out in the couple dynamic and may not be relevant or become problematic.


  • Dreams & Creating Shared Meaning

Communication difficulties often stem from not really knowing your partner or considering what’s important to them at a deeper level.  We then stay at a transactional level picking and scrapping to get less important needs met, not delving deeper into understanding each other and meeting deeper desires.

Gottman approaches this other-understanding by each person communicating their dreams through narrative to reveal the hidden meaning and to build and develop what is called ‘Love Maps’.  Exercises include Gottman Rapport; Dreams within Conflict; and Stress-Reducing Conversation. Here is a great article that elaborates more on these techniques.

There is also a free Gottman Relationship Quiz which can highlight what you know about your partner to highlight some areas you may like to delve deeper into.


  • Improving positive affect/interaction

These are things we do to keep the positive at a higher ratio than the negative interactions.  They include positive bids for connection; the art of listening; taking an interest; examining goals and dreams and the underlying deeper meaning and desires these convey. 

There are also two specific tools I use at varying times depending on the client:


Gottman Relationship Check-up

The Gottman relationship check-up is a comprehensive online questionnaire across all the key areas of a relationship that Gottman measures and it provides an extensive report that shows the ‘red and green’ areas where couples agree or have contention. 


I can use the report and go through this in sections to talk through the results (the client pays for the report on the Gottman Institute site but the results have to go back to a registered therapist). I receive the report and then in sessions can go through the report to discuss key areas. 

This usually takes a few sessions but does depend on how in-depth each area of concern takes to navigate.  I use this tool for couples who like a form of measurement rather than engaging in talk therapy and trusting the process to bring up what needs to.  This is a much more regimented and methodical approach and that suits some people. 

Gottman Card Decks (free)

This can be found in both the IOS App Store and Android Google Play Store.  I ask couples to download this app and give them homework for date night or connection time together to use this tool to navigate important conversations.  For example, there are card decks to facilitate sharing and discussion such as ‘Open Ended Questions” and ‘Sex Questions’ and ‘Give Appreciation’ ideas. 

Sometimes a facilitated exercise to prioritise and be intentional about sharing information with each other can assist to get you talking and exploring some of the difficult conversations that are too hard to embark on unaided. Most couples report having some fun with it and having ‘homework’ makes it happen when normally it would be easy to avoid.


Gottman Couples Counselling

Hopefully, that gives you a comprehensive overview of the Gottman method and what parts I can include in how I approach couples therapy.  If this sparks your interest and motivation to begin couples therapy in the Carindale or Brisbane area or online, please mention some specific elements that you would like to focus on.  You can contact me at sara.martn@lifesensecounselling to book a session.

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