Gottman Couple's Therapy: Understanding the Approach and the Four Horsemen

Every relationship experiences challenges and moments of disconnection. However, the  difference between couples who thrive and those who struggle often lies in their approach to conflict. Doctors and married couple John and Julie Gottman, prominent figures in the field of couple's therapy, have dedicated their lives to researching the dynamics of relationships. John Gottman’s methods, rooted in over 50 years of rigorous studies, including work from his "Love Lab" at the University of Washington, provide actionable insights into nurturing long-lasting  relationships. Let’s dive into The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy and see if it might be right for you and your partner. 

Gottman Couple's Therapy: An Overview 

The Gottman method stands out in the couple's therapy world first and foremost because of its  deep rooting in evidence-based science. After observing more than 3000 couples, John Gottman identified specific behaviors and patterns that could predict with over 90% accuracy which couples would  divorce and which would stay together. His approach focuses on: 

  1. Building Friendship: This involves deepening the sense of connection, understanding, and admiration between partners. 
  2. Enhancing Positive Perspective: Couples are encouraged to view each other and their relationship in a positive light, emphasizing the good over the negative. 
  3. Managing Conflict: Conflict is viewed as natural, and therapy instead focuses on helping couples navigate disagreements in healthy ways. 
  4. Supporting Dreams: Couples learn to understand each other's dreams and aspirations and  find ways to support them, even if they don’t always align. 

While all of the above are deemed important, managing conflict is the side of the relational coin that the Gottman process identifies as most often determining a relationship’s success or  downfall. Dr. John Gottman identified four behaviors that, when recurrent, were so detrimental to a relationship's survival, that he aptly named them "the Four Horsemen." 

The Four Horsemen: Harbingers of Relationship Apocalypse 

  1. Criticism: While feedback is a normal part of relationships, criticism involves attacking one's  partner at the core of their character rather than addressing a specific behavior. It often starts  with absolutes like "you are a...", "you always", or "you never," and it paints the partner in a  fundamentally negative light. 

Antidote: Use "I" statements and express feelings without blame. For instance, instead of  saying, "You never listen to me, you’re so self-centered" one could say, "I feel unheard when  you're on your phone during our conversations."

  1. Contempt: This is arguably the most dangerous of the horsemen. Contempt involves looking  down on one's partner and seeing them as beneath oneself. It can manifest as sarcasm,  mockery, name-calling, or even body language like eye-rolling. 

Antidote: Build a culture of appreciation and respect while regularly expressing gratitude for  your partner's actions and qualities. 

  1. Defensiveness: When confronted with a complaint or criticism, a defensive person refuses to  accept responsibility and often plays the victim or reverses the blame. This avoids addressing  the issue and escalates conflicts.  

Antidote: Take responsibility, even if it’s just for a part of the conflict. Acknowledging one's  role can de-escalate tension and pave the way for a solution. 

  1. Stonewalling: This involves withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. A  person who stonewalls might physically leave a conversation or just emotionally check out,  acting evasive or indifferent. While the TV was once the ultimate stonewalling tool, the phone  and “phubbing” are now number one by far. 

Antidote: Practice physiological self-soothing. Work to stay engaged with your partner, even  in moments of high tension or conflict. And if you feel overwhelmed, take a break from the  discussion, but let your partner know when you'll be ready to continue. Use the break to calm  down and reflect, not to rehearse arguments. 

Gottman Couples Therapy, with its emphasis on understanding conflict and nurturing positivity,  offers couples a roadmap to build resilient, fulfilling relationships. By recognizing the Four  Horsemen and implementing their antidotes, couples can address challenges proactively,  ensuring that minor disagreements don't escalate into insurmountable issues. 

Every relationship is unique, and while challenges are inevitable, with the right tools and  mindset, couples can navigate the storms together. If you recognize the Four Horsemen in your relationship, consider seeking guidance from a Gottman trained therapist here at Lifeologie. Help for your relationship is only a click away.

About Richard Aab

Richard Aab, LCMHCA, has a BFA in Theatre from NYU and received his Clinical Mental Health Counselor, M.Ed. (Master’s in Education) from North Carolina State University. He is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate (LCMHC-A) and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). Richard has a deep commitment to working with individuals overcoming developmental and childhood trauma, and he combines cutting-edge, neuroscientific research with traditional existential and behavioral therapeutic modalities. He is supervised by Elizabeth Grady, LCMHCS, and sees adult clients by telehealth.

Meet Me