“I can’t tell you how nice it is to be having a session with a couple that is not on the brink of a breakup. It’s certainly a welcomed change!” our therapist said, smiling at my boyfriend and me curled up together on the couch, our hands intertwined.
Prior to this, my experience with couples therapy was limited to curiosity about relationship psychology (I read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus at sixteen, and a slew of relationship books after) and many failed efforts trying to get former boyfriends to invest in healthy relationship practices.
This was my first time in therapy with a significant other, and we were quite excited about it. Unlike my ex-boyfriends and the couples that Julie Schwartz Gottman and John M. Gottman describe in 10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy, my boyfriend and I were not on a sinking ship watching one another drown. We wanted to go to therapy to focus on the things that worked in our relationship, to focus on what brought us joy and strengthened our bond.
The Gottmans write that this proactive approach is a rare treat for professional psychoanalysts. In most cases, couples are already in deep despair by the time they see a therapist.
According to Julie Gottman, conducting couples therapy as a practitioner “can be like traversing a minefield. Take a wrong step and you can blow up someone’s trauma history. A wrong step and you can be met with a glare of disapproval. A wrong step and he can say, ‘See, she even agrees with me,’ and that’s even worse. Another wrong step and they can fall into stunned silence, both feeling scolded by you.” All this risk, she writes, “makes you hesitant to even step out the door.”
Even Freud once wrote a paper condemning couples therapy. He advised psychoanalysts to avoid counseling couples all together. But despite the challenges that can arise during a session with partners, John and Julie Gottman have never shied away from relationship therapy. Instead, they are famously known for being scientific relationship gurus — the leading relationship research team.
Julie Gottman is the cofounder and president of The Gottman Institute, a highly respected clinical psychologist, and an expert advisor on marriage, domestic violence, and much more. John Gottman has published numerous books and has spent forty years researching predictive indicators for successful marriages and relationships. Now, 10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy is a collective effort that comes with a twist: it’s written for therapists, not for couples.
“We are not here to tell you how we alone know how to do couples therapy with infallible methods that guarantee you fortune, fame, and hundreds of grateful clients,” the Gottmans write. “You’re much smarter than that — you know it’s not that simple.”
It isn’t, and like their previous books, 10 Principles attempts to break down a complex issue into something more tangible. Also like previous books, the heart of this text focuses on well-crafted principles for effective therapy, and includes scientific research, assessments, exercises, and statistics. If you are familiar with Gottman practices, this read will be a stroll down memory lane. The Sound Relationship House theory, turning towards each other instead of turning away, building love maps, and so on, will all be repeat information.
What if the couple you’re counseling has a great friendship, but no shared meaning? What if they develop shared meaning, but lose their conflict management skills? Just like a real relationship is comprised of constantly moving parts, so are the techniques a therapist may utilize. I was reminded of this frequently when reading through the many case studies (leaving a bit to be desired, because it would be great to know how these couples ended up). I recalled many failed “relationship houses” and then quietly thanked my lucky stars that I’m in a relationship where they’re all intact. While your house doesn’t have to be perfect (things in flux never can be), it becomes clearer and clearer with each case study that strong disconnection in one area can bring down an entire relationship.
The bottom line for therapists reading this book is that old truism: practice makes perfect. As with any great profession, therapists are students just as much as they are teachers. If a therapist can’t uphold conflict management skills, how can they possibly teach them? Or how about compassion towards those we detest? If you’ve ever experienced an affair, you know how difficult compassionate listening can be. “In place of negative judgments, we need to provide an unbiased approach that compassionately serves both partners as they struggle to rebuild a collapsed marriage,” Julie Gottman writes. “Suspend moral judgments.”
Few things are more fascinating than when therapy and scientific research come together, which is precisely why any work produced by John or Julie Gottman makes for an interesting read. While I found 10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy to be much of the same information available in previous Gottman books (7 Principles for Making Marriage Work and 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage come to mind), this latest book still seems helpful for the target audience: therapists. If the purpose of this book is to help them practice Gottman techniques with couples, then it succeeds by offering them a clinical template.
As for the rest of us, the book may help us cultivate compassion for the third person in the room: the one trying to mediate our situation.
10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy
W. W. Norton & Company, October 2015
Hardcover, 288 pages