Listen to Clinton Power + Associates couples therapist Lidia Smirnov talk about the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy
Clinton: Hello it’s Clinton Power here, from Clinton Power and Associates, and it’s my great pleasure today to be speaking with one of my very own associates, Lidia Smirnov. Hello Lidia, how are you?
Lidia: I’m very well Clinton, how are you?
Clinton: I’m great, and I’m really looking forward to speaking to you today about the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy because the Gottman is so well known and this is an area that you are very well versed in, and we get a lot of people asking about the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy as well, so I thought this might be a great opportunity to really dive in deep about what it is, how it works, what can people expect and what are benefits people can get as well.
To begin with, why don’t you let us know what is the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy?
Lidia: Good question. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been studying relationships and couples for going on 40 years plus. The therapy model itself is very much based on the research that John Gottman has done in collaboration with a couple of his colleagues over that period of time. You could say it is a research and evidence-based model.
Clinton: That’s extraordinary. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world that’s been studying couples for that long, over 40 years. You can see why this approach is so popular, but why do you think it’s so popular? Why do you think so many couples are benefiting from working with a therapist who uses this approach?
Lidia: I think it’s popular because there are lot of people that are looking for models that give them some form of structure. That there are proven interventions that they could either learn from or they can experience and grow as a result of that. I think a lot of couples, I mean embarking on couple therapy is a daunting task for a lot of people, so coming in and knowing that they are going to be supported by a framework that’s been in the making for over 40 years is reassuring for a lot of people.
Clinton: Lidia, do all Gottman couples therapists across the world use a similar framework? Is that right?
Lidia: That’s right, that is correct, yes.
Clinton: What are some of the broad principles of the Gottman Approach to Couple Therapy that couples can expect to experience with this framework?
Lidia: Okay. Looking at the broader principles – how they look at the relationship sessions, the aim is really to assess first, and then you decide on course of treatment. I guess in that sort of assessment phase, what will come up is really the troubles between the couples or the challenges will very much become evidence, very early on. Then following that with understanding of the individual partners in the world. That’s really part of their individual assessment, which I will go into in a little bit more detail as we unpack this model.
Then after the initial assessment period, you’re then mapping out a treatment plan with the couple. From get go, this is all done in collaboration and there is really clear direction as to where the therapy is going and what are some of the areas that require work. Clearly the areas that the couples are doing well in, you leave those well alone, but it’s areas that they are struggling, that’s where you start to pay attention. The interventions can be very effective from get go.
Then of course as you’re going to the actual work itself, it really then comes down to resourcing the clients and helping them to process a lot of the past regrettable instances because if we don’t look at those it could potentially derail the whole therapy if people are carrying wounds that they never got to air or pain that was never released or acknowledged by their partner. It’s really important earlier on in the piece to be able to help the couples to do that, but to do that in a very set structure that is supported and held by the therapist, which gives them the comfort to actually go to these places.
On top of all of that, teaching them different ways of managing their conflict, helping them to strengthen their friendship and intimacy, and then looking at what the Gottman’s call the ‘sound relationship house’. They look at a relationship as a house and the foundations of the house really need to be strong, and that’s really where the friendship and intimacy levels are. Then the roof of the house is around dreams of the individuals and the meaning behind the relationship and what the couple are wanting to create in terms of that shared meaning.
The in-between is how they manage the conflict. Then, of course, the pillars of the house are based on trust and commitment. The whole structure is framed as this relationship house and the whole approach is very much defined, as in these levels of the house and the walls that’s holding up the house. It’s very clear, very precise, and it gives me great comfort to know that it’s all based on over 40 years of research and it’s proven to work, so it’s a really good frame to work from.
Clinton: Wonderful. One of the things I love about the Gottman approach is what you touched on there. There’s this comprehensive assessment at the beginning and that from that assessment you then create the treatment plan, which I think really differentiates this approach from many other couples approaches and it makes so much sense to me, because it’s like then you’ve got a map and you know where you’re going, and you know how to get there.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the couple’s assessment, like what is it and how does it help?
Lidia: The assessment is across four sessions, and the initial assessment is between the couples. So you get to have a history. You take an oral history of the relationship, you get to start to understand what are some of the patterns that are stopping the relationship from flourishing in the way that both of the partners hopefully want. What are some of the challenges that keep on repeating? What are some of the relationship patterns the partners have found themselves in that are no longer serving either one of them?
That’s done in collaboration of course with the couple. That’s followed by two individual sessions, so one each with the couples, and that really goes into the individual history. Understanding the individual inner worlds, you know, family of origin, and we touch on some of their beliefs and values, and some of their fears. It is very detailed, so as a clinician we have the opportunity to actually gain a lot of data in these initial sessions, but on top of that the couples are also asked to fill in quite a comprehensive assessment questionnaires, and that’s divided into nine separate sections, covering a huge range of topics across their individual lives as well as their lived together as a couple.
It really is a fantastic way of mapping out what is the terrain, even before you start to work. What are some of the areas that have been flagged, as I said before, as potential areas where we need to do some work, but also not forgetting to highlight to the couples where they’re doing well. Often I think people lose sight of what they’re doing well in and they focus on the negative, so this assessment allows the couple to stop, assess what’s going on, and also acknowledge the strength in the relationship, as well as looking at what are some of the areas that the relationship could benefit from if we were to spend some time in learning some new tools and putting in some really clear structures to help them navigate that area.
Clinton: Fantastic. I love what you’re saying Lidia. That point that couple’s therapy doesn’t have to all be about problems. That it’s also valuable to highlight strengths, to look at their resources, to discover what you’re already doing well and to amplify that and to do more of it, so I love the message you’re sharing there. What can a couple expect to experience in the first few sessions, if a couple comes to see you and you’re using the Gottman approach?
Lidia: I make it very clear to the couple that I will not be doing any form of intervention before the assessment is complete. The reason for that is I love this quotes that the Gottman’s use based on a very well-known psychologist over in the US. What he says is, “Driving faster won’t get you there any sooner if you don’t know where you’re going.” So this idea of a therapist meeting the couple for the first time and somehow is able to solve their problem, that is not how I view the relationships that walk into my room.
I really look at the couple and I will very much tell them, “You’re the expert of your relationship, and you’re here because things are not working well, and I need to understand what isn’t working well. The assessment really helps me and give all three of us that framework from get-go and very clear understanding as to where we’re going to be focusing our efforts.”
Once the assessment piece is done, then it’s very much looking through, again, the sound relationship house, which is the Gottman model, and we look at on which level is the relationship struggling. Is it at the friendship, intimacy level? Is it at the conflict management level, or is it further up the house in terms of creating shared meaning and creating dreams together and understanding one another, or is it more along the pillars and trust and commitment.
We look at that as a stage, so there is not point jumping to conflict resolution if there is no friendliness in the relationship. If there is no trust and the trust is really broken we cannot look at conflict resolution. If the couples are at tipping points, let’s really teach them how to soothe, let’s get them present into the room, and then let’s look at once again understanding who is this person you’re sitting across from. When was the last time you actually updated your idea of who this person is?
I find a lot of couples along the way, because life gets so busy, children come along, or they are pulled in all various directions – family, study, work, friendships – and the couple actually don’t get a lot of time to update their understanding of who each other is and how one another have evolved in that time so the idea that they have of that couple is quite outdated. Often, it really does come down to quite simply, let’s stop, let’s give each other some room, and let’s get to know one another again. The Gottman’s have fantastic interventions and suggestions around how couples can do that.
Clinton: I love this approach Lidia, this is fantastic. What are some of the results and benefits that couples who undertake this approach can experience? Maybe can you share a case study of a couple that you’ve worked with this approach?
Lidia: As I was sort of sharing that with you, what came to mind was this couple I recently had. They walked in, they’ve been married for 25 years, and they’ve been in one another’s lives for about 30 years. They have kids that are young adults, children are about to leave home and I think this is when it dawned on both of them just how little they share lives together as a couple. As their eldest son’s starting to get ready to move out, it really brought to light a lot of the areas that were no longer working in their relationship, but they came into therapy because underlying the relationship there is a lot of trust and respect.
There is love, although they don’t know if they’re still in love. They know they love each other but they don’t know if they’re still in love and they were quite curious about that. We went through the Gottman assessments, and a lo and behold one of the areas that was highlighted was friendship and intimacy. That really was an area they needed to work on, and of course when I raised that with both of them, they both nodded enthusiastically that that was something that was missing in both their lives and they really felt that their partner were taking them for granted, that their partner no longer found them attractive or interesting, and that was starting to really wear away at this sense of connectedness in the relationship.
Both of them busied themselves with children and their work, and now that the kids are leaving home they were really forced to look at this. Under the Gottman interventions I really just got them to sit down, and the Gottman’s have this fantastic tool that they call it the love maps. It’s a set of cards, where it’s like a deck of cards that they split in half, and they each pick up their half and they take turns asking their partner questions about their current psychological world, about their current stresses, about what their dreams are, what their aspirations are, what are they currently anxious about, how do they hope for things to be.
Really starting a dialogue once again about what is here and now, what is relevant for their partner. That was really enjoyable for both of them to be able to do that, because they both found that life just got really busy and they lost sight of their relationship, and they did not make it a priority. To re-focus once again on the basic building blocks of the relationship was really an enjoyable experience for both of them and it gave them hope. We did that for a couple of sessions and then we opened the dialogue to other areas of their lives and rituals of connexion and meaning-making.
What I love about the Gottman approach is there are interventions, very clear set out exercises that the couples can engage in and it’s really enjoyable work. This couple in particular that I have in mind were able to re-connect very early with the work and with each other. It was really a wonderful experience for me to be a part of. I’m still working with them, but it was really solid, just laying the groundwork which they found very beneficial and helpful.
Clinton: I was just thinking that, Lidia, that what enjoyable work this must be for you to witness that and just to see a couple re-connect after feeling so disconnected for so long.
Lidia: That’s right, actually I truly believe it’s a privilege for me to be sitting across from couples and for couples to be able to build the rapport and find and trust that I’m able to hold that space for them. I do hold the space in a very loving way, but also a very non-judgmental way. It’s a safe space that the couple come into, and we do some wonderful work.
Clinton: Fantastic. Thank you so much for speaking to us today, Lidia. I hope those that have been listening to this have a really good sense and a flavour of how wonderful the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy is, and of course if you are listening, Lidia is someone who specialises in this approach. She has done extensive training in the Gottman approach and you can certainly call Lidia or book an appointment with her through our website at clintonpower.com.au and you can specifically request to speak to Lidia or book an appointment with her.
Thank you Lidia, I really enjoyed talking to you today, and wishing you all the best.
Lidia: Thank you very much, Clinton. Thank you for your time.
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