A major component of Gottman Method Couples Therapy is what Drs. John and Julie Gottman refer to as the Sound Relationship House, or the seven components of healthy coupleships. These seven components are also referred to as the Seven Principles, and are outlined in Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as well. These principles are not mutually exclusive, but rather build sequentially on one another in order to form a strong relationship.
The Sound Relationship House
1. Build Love Maps. This is the foundation of the Sound Relationship House. Basically, a love map refers to one’s partner’s inner psychological world. At this stage, you ask yourself, “How well do I know my partner’s history, worries, stresses, joys, and hopes?” Getting to know your partner in this way, learning his or her love map, is essential to building the rest of the house. It not only involves the couple knowing one another, but also periodically updating that knowledge because all people change. More importantly, it also involves being interested in your partner’s love map in non-conflict times. The fundamental process at this level is asking open-ended questions.
2. Share Fondness and Admiration. This level is the antidote for contempt, as referred to in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and focuses on the amount of affection and respect within the relationship. The fundamental process at this level is changing a habit of mind. Instead of scanning the environment for your partner’s mistakes and then correcting them, you scan the environment for what your partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect.
3. Turn Towards. In the third story of the house, you not only state your needs, but you are aware of bids for connection and turn towards them. In other words, you look for the everyday moments that can be opportunities to be closer to your partner. The fundamental process in this stage is building awareness of how one’s partner asks for connection and expresses emotional needs, and deciding to turn towards these bids rather than turning away from them or against them. The main message here is that small choices can hugely affect the couple’s life together – the small everyday moments of life are actually building blocks of a relationship.
4. The Positive Perspective. In order to reach the fourth level, the couple must be in what is called Positive Sentiment Override (PSO). The PSO determines the presence of positive affect in problem solving discussions, and the success of repair attempts during conflict resolution. If the couple does not successfully build the first three stories of the Sound Relationship House, they are said to be in Negative Sentiment Override (NSO), and cannot reach this level. If they are in NSO, even neutral or positive messages are perceived as negative and the person is hyper-vigilant for negativity. In other words, one or both people have “a chip on their shoulder.” In the NSO, people see their partner not as a friend, but as an adversary. That said, the way to change NSO to PSO is by improving the couple’s friendship. In order to improve their friendship, they need to further strengthen the first three levels. The Positive Perspective means there is a positive approach to problem solving and success of repair-attempts. It is important to maintain your own identity in a relationship, but it is equally important to yield to your partner and give in. If both partners realize this and submit to their partner in this way, then they will learn to respect one another on a deeper level.
5. Manage Conflict. You might wonder why this is “managing conflict” rather than “resolving conflict.” The truth of the matter is, relationship conflict is natural and can actually have positive and functional aspects. Because there are two people, there will be disagreements. In regulating conflict, couples need to identify the core issues of negative cycles in their relationship. They also need to be aware of the anatomy of those cycles, which means understanding what triggers escalation (e.g., defensiveness, criticism, contempt, belligerence) and what lies behind these triggers in each person’s past history (either within the relationship or not). This level also includes knowing the difference between solvable problems and perpetual problems:
Solvable Problems: For these kinds of problems, there are Four Parts of Effective Problem Solving: Softened Startup, Accepting Influence, Repair and De-escalation (including physiological soothing), and Compromise. The use of positive affect in de-escalation is a part of this too, and happens automatically when PSO is in place.
Therapy can help teach a couple recovery after fights. Of course, we would all like to avoid nasty fights altogether, but Gottman found that in his research that fighting in and of itself was not the problem. In fact, couples who did not fight at all were more likely to get divorced! So, it is not the goal to teach people not to fight, or even to use reflective listening skills (“So what I hear you saying is…”) because it is hard for anyone to use them in the middle of an argument. Instead, it is helpful to know how to recover after a fight. This includes steps such as
Six basic social skills
Recognizing and avoiding the Four Horsemen
Accepting influence (especially for men)
Soothing physiological arousal: relaxation techniques can help partners calm down during heated arguments, but once a person is upset it takes as long as 20 minutes for the body to calm itself down
Recognizing and responding to repair attempts
Rituals of Connection – standard, everyday ways the couple feels bonded to each other. Rituals of connection make effective repair easier to accomplish. Decreasing negativity before and after fights is a must
Fade out the Therapist – Gottman starts with 90 minute sessions, then eventually moves to once every two weeks, then month, then finally to therapy “check-ups” to help the couple function on their own without the therapist. This also helps the couple to avoid relapsing into previous problems. The goal of therapy is ultimately to help the couple build skills that they can use to continue to manage their conflicts and their relationship in the future, without regularly seeing a therapist
Perpetual Problems: in order for the couple to avoid “gridlock,” it is necessary that the couple establish a “dialogue” of the perpetual problem. This involves a considerable deal of positive affect, even when discussing a disagreement. Positive affect can include interest, affection, humor, empathy, excitement, and softening. Even neutral affect can be positive during a conflict discussion. A critical part of this process is physiological soothing. Overall, there needs to be a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative affect. Couples who are closer to a 1 to 1 ratio are headed down a road to divorce or relationship dissolution.
To move a couple from gridlock to dialogue, therapy will help teach the couple basic compromising skills. Some of these may include not using “crazy buttons” that instantly escalate the argument (such as the comment “you are just like your mother!”), and showing the couple a video of their arguments.
Over 60% of marital problems are not solved but are managed, and therapy starts with talking about how to manage these issues for the future, just like managing a chronic illness like diabetes.
Usually, the conflict is not about the topic being discussed at the time, but rather has an underlying symbolic meaning that may be tied to a dream or fantasy. This makes compromise difficult to achieve because one person may feel like they cannot compromise without giving up a dream or aspiration.
6. Make Life Dreams Come True. In the sixth story, or level, of the Sound Relationship House, couples are encouraged to create an atmosphere that encourages each person to talk honestly about his or her hopes, values, convictions, and aspirations. Therapists used to believe that if conflicts were resolved, positive affects or feelings of all types would swoop back into the couple’s world automatically. This is not true, and therapists and researchers now know that positive affect systems need to be built intentionally. These affect systems can be built through play, fun, exploration, and adventure. This level is about helping one’s partner realize important life dreams and making the relationships effective at doing this. To accomplish this means unlocking conflict gridlock by exploring and understanding each other’s values. The goal is to at least get to a position that allows the other person to empathize with the partner’s view, even if a compromise cannot be reached.
7. Create Shared Meaning. In the attic, or upper-most level of the house, the couple understands important visions, narratives, myths, and metaphors about the relationship. Simply put, the people in the relationship create a sense of shared meaning in their life together. A shared meaning system is created through the way a couple moves through time together, in how they prioritize their time and resources, in the stories they tell on another about their lives, and in the way they decide to have things and events in their lives have meaning. In the attic also lie the narratives about what life means, and the rituals of connection in a relationship and a family. More importantly, this level includes the active creation of a new culture that has never existed before, by creating a relationship and a family. The union of the two people, no matter how similar or diverse their backgrounds, involves the creation of a new world of meaning because every relationship is a cross-cultural experience.