Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: U is for Understanding

U is for Understanding
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

There are about a half-dozen primary sound bites that frame Gottman Method Couples Therapy. One is Small Things Often. Small Things Often is the idea that it’s the small positive things done often that make the difference in relationships that thrive. Small things - a wink, a compliment, a car wash - add up and create a surplus of good-will and affection that make it easy to ignore some of the very many mundane trials that couples face every day. Small things often can create big changes over time.

Another soundbite is Process Is Everything. This means that how you talk through those very many mundane trials is what matters. Your ability to treat one another with kindness and respect is more important than your need to solve the problem. Couples who process well know how to repair and reflect. They know that it’s not what they say, but the way they say it that matters. They know that all of their feelings and emotions are allowed, but that some of the ways they express those feelings and emotions are not. Process is everything means the relationship is more important than the issue. 

A third soundbite, and one of my favorites, is Understanding Must Precede Advice. This, of course, is ancient wisdom that could have come from Buddha or Gandhi. More recently, it’s entered popular consciousness in the form of Steven Covey’s 5th Habit for Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Even more recently, Jason Headley and the guy who invented the internet have brought us this video.

Understanding Must Precede Advice is a difficult premise to uphold. In part, it’s because we want so desperately to be understood. It’s the way we’re wired. Human beings have been trying to express themselves since the beginning of time. I recently read about a sculpture of two reindeers carved into a mammoth tusk. The carving is nearly 13,000 years old and is part of the collection at the British Museum. What’s fascinating about the sculpture is that it is one of the earliest known expressions of art and historians suggest that the capacity - and indeed the drive for art - is evidence that humans have an innate desire to make their inner world known. The impulse to be understood is deeply ingrained. And it’s hard to suppress what is, essentially, our humanity.

The second reason that Understanding Must Precede Advice is so hard is that it’s so easy, and comforting, to give advice. Especially for men. “It’s Not About the Nail” is funny because it’s true. As a man, I love solving problems. And, if I’m honest, I’d rather solve your problems than my own. Because if I can fix you, then I can feel good about myself without having to look at my own stuff. (SIde note: Whether you’re a man or a woman, this is an especially present challenge for a mental health therapist. But I am convinced that we serve our clients better when we avoid the temptation to give advice and instead offer understanding.) I’m actually convinced that’s true no matter what role you play. But again, it’s hard, so how do you avoid the trap?

Think of a cue ball. You can probably imagine the heft, texture, and color in your hand pretty simply. Not much to consider, amiright? I once read, however, relative to the surface of the earth, the ridges and valleys on a cue ball were higher than the highest mountains and deeper than the deepest oceans on our plant. I think that’s kind of wild. Now imagine a conversation (or a conflict) where the topic was a cue ball being tossed back and forth. All too often, we fail to consider what is actually being said. In part because we think we already know. That cue ball isn’t really all that interesting if you’re not paying attention. It’s certainly not as interesting as the thing I want to say, so I’m going to toss that ball right back. 

But consider if that cue ball was a globe. Go ahead and imagine a regular desktop globe and imagine the conversation involves tossing it back and forth. Have you ever noticed how much bigger the Pacific Ocean is than the Atlantic? Do you know close Alaska and Russia are? How far do the Rocky Mountains run north to south? What’s the quickest way to fly to from Kansas City to Greenland? How far north is Rome compared to Miami? Which is bigger, Germany or Chile?

You have to look. You have to consider. You have to take that globe that’s been tossed at you and roll it around. Look at it from different angles. You have to marvel that the cue ball you had before is actually more textured than the detailed map you’re holding in your hand. That means entertaining the possibility than you might not have complete clarity about the situation, the conversation, the complication.

Understanding requires looking, considering, examining, comparing and contrasting. It requires more curiosity than certainty. And more safety than solution. Ideally, you’ve done a good job with Small Things Often and Process is Everything. Then you can confidently do Understanding Must Precede Advice. The first step is to set aside the impulse express yourself and your temptation to solve. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a much better chance of discovering what that cue ball, or globe, or conversation or conflict is really all about. Because most likely, it’s not about the nail.

Special Note I Promised To Include: 
My daughter and I took a walk the other day when, during our conversation about “understanding,” it started to rain. Being from Seattle, I take a special sort of pride in not owning an umbrella. Being 11 years old, my daughter takes a special sort of pride in being fancy. She had an umbrella and was serious about using it. I refused, for whatever 41 year old reason I could conjure, to take shelter with her when she said, “You know dad, if you were standing under my umbrella, you wouldn’t be so wet and miserable. Understanding protects you from the storm.” Linguistically, it’s a stretch, but I think the insight is pretty sound. Sometimes 11 trumps 41 when it comes to wisdom.


This is Zach's 21th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The 6 Things That Predict Divorce

The 6 Things that Predict Divorce
By Michael Fulwiler 

The first step toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what happens when relationships fail. This has been well documented by Dr. John Gottman’s extensive research into couples that were not able to save their marriages. Learning about the failures can prevent your relationship from making the same mistakes – or rescue it if it already has.

In The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman lists the 6 things that predict divorce. His ability to predict divorce is based in part on his analysis of the 130 newlywed couples who were observed at his “Love Lab” apartment at the University of Washington. Among other things, he asked these couples to spend fifteen minutes in the lab trying to resolve an ongoing disagreement they were having while he videotaped them. As they spoke, sensors attached to their bodies gauged their stress levels based on various measurements of their circulatory system. This is what he found.

1.  Harsh Startup
The most obvious indicator that a conflict discussion (and marriage) is not going to go well is the way it begins. When a discussion leads off with criticism and/or sarcasm (a form on contempt), it has begun with a “harsh startup.” The research shows that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note. Statistics tell the story: 96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.

2. The Four Horsemen
Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that we call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. Read more about The Four Horsemen and their antidotes here.

3. Flooding 
Flooding means that your partner’s negativity – whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness – is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. A marriage’s meltdown can be predicted, then, by habitual harsh startup and frequent flooding brought on by the relentless presence of the four horsemen during disagreements. Although each of these factors alone can predict a divorce, they usually coexist in an unhappy marriage.

4. Body Language 
When Dr. Gottman monitored couples for bodily changes during a conflict discussion, he could see just how physically distressing flooding was. One of the most apparent of these physical reactions is that the heart speeds up – pounding away at more than 100 beats per minute – even as high as 165. Hormonal changes occur, too, including the secretion of adrenaline. Blood pressure also mounts. The physical sensations of feeling flooded make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.

5. Failed Repair Attempts 
It takes time for the four horsemen and flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage. And yet, divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation. How can this be? The answer is that by analyzing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part of that pattern is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail. Repair attempts are efforts the couple makes to deescalate the tension during a discussion. The failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future. Read more about repair attempts here.

6. Bad Memories
When Dr. Gottman interviews couples, he asks them about the history of their relationship. In a happy marriage, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember how positive they felt early on, how excited they were when they met, and how much admiration they had for each other. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they weathered together. Conduct your own Oral History Interview here

Friday, October 3, 2014

Weekend Homework Assignment: Turning Towards

Weekend Homework Assignment: Turning Towards
By Michael Fulwiler 

On Tuesday, Zach Brittle wrote about Turning Towards and asked readers to send him a picture of the "flowchart for conflict" through bids and turning that he describes in "T is for Turning." This is what we think it may look like:

He received many excellent (and creative) submissions from readers, and has selected his two favorites to share with you: 

via Erin M. 

via Melanie J.

Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to continue the discussion of Turning Toward by providing an exercise written by Dr. Gottman for what to do when your partner doesn’t Turn Toward you. 

If one of you is feeling rejected by the other lately, or overwhelmed by your partner’s need for closeness, you should both take some time this weekend to review the exercise below and then share your answers. There is no answer key for these questions – they are merely a point of departure for discussions with your partner. The bottom line of this approach is that there isn’t one reality when a couple misses each other in little ways. There are two equally legitimate perspectives. Remember: couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice. Once you understand and acknowledge this, you’ll find that reconnecting just comes naturally. 

During this week I felt:

1. Defensive.                        A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
2. Hurt.                                 A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
3. Unappreciated.               A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
4. Unattractive.
                   A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
5. Sad.
                                   A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
6. Lonely.                             A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
7. Criticized. 
                       A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
8. Worried. 
                         A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
9. Misunderstood.
              A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
10. Like leaving. 
                 A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 

What triggered these feelings?

1. I felt excluded.                           A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
2. I felt that my partner               A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
    was not attracted to me. 
3. I was not important                 A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
    to my partner.
4. I felt no affection
                      A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 
    toward my partner.
5. I definitely felt
                           A Great Deal    Definitely    A Little    Not at all 

Now that you know what triggered this episode, it’s time to see whether your emotional reaction is rooted in your past. Were there any connections there between earlier traumas or behavior and the current situation? Use the following list to facilitate this search for links between the past and present.

These recent feelings about my relationship come from: 

  • The way I was treated in my family growing up
  • A previous relationship
  • Past injuries, hard times, or traumas I’ve suffered
  • My basic fears and insecurities
  • Things and events I have not yet resolved or put aside
  • Unrealized hopes I have
  • Ways other people treated me in the past
  • Things I have always thought about myself
  • Old “nightmares” or “catastrophes” I have worried about

After you’ve discussed each other’s answers above, you will come to see that many of your differences are not really matter of “fact.” We are all complicated creatures whose actions and reactions are governed by a wide array of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories. 

As you work through this exercise, you’ll become more adept at turning toward each other regularly. When you honor and respect each other, you’re able to appreciate each other’s point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Relationship Alphabet: T is for Turning

T is for Turning 
By Zach Brittle, LMHC

I have this picture in my brain. It’s kind-of a flowchart for conflict. Maybe it’s a Venn diagram. It might just be a napkin scrawl that I’ve not yet drawn. In my mind, it’s a pretty clear pathway from relationship stability through conflict and ultimately to intimacy. I’m going to try and explain it in writing. See if your brain can picture it too. Here it goes.

We’ve already established that all relationships are going to have Problems. We’ve also explored the concept of Repair, which is the key to addressing the Conflict that arises from your Problems. In my picture, Problems simply exist. A couple can respond to Problems with Conflict or with Dialogue. Dialogue is good. It helps you avoid Gridlock. Conflict is not good, but it’s also not deadly. A couple can respond to Conflict with Escalation or Repair. 

In the picture, that whole paragraph is to the right of, or maybe it's below, Problems. So far what we’ve got is a notion of how Repair helps return the relationship to stability. I’ve already stated that Repair is my favorite concept in the Gottman lexicon. My second favorite concept is Turning. If Repair is the tool for diffusing Conflict, Turning is the tool for avoiding it. Turning is on the left side of the picture. 

To understand Turning, you have to first understand Bids. A Bid is any gesture - verbal or nonverbal - for some sort of positive connection with your partner. Bids can be simple or complex and can represent a request for conversation, humor, affection, support, or simply for attention. Most are actually pretty easy to spot and respond to: “How do I look?” “Can you pass the guacamole?” “Will you help me change the bedspread?” Other bids are more complicated: “Want to go to yoga with me?” “Let’s learn how to play the guitar.” “Do you feel like fooling around?” 

No matter the nature of the Bid, it is critical to learn to recognize and Turn Toward your partner. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that Masters of relationships turn toward their spouses approximately 20x more than couples in distress. In a newlywed study, newlyweds who were still married six years after their wedding had turned towards each other 86% of the time; while those who were divorced within six years only turned toward each other 33% of the time.

Turning Towards is clearly best, but it can’t be assumed. The picture of Turning is fraught with its own complexities. In addition to Turning Towards, partners can Turn Away or Turn Against. Both are equally damaging to the relationship. Turning Away generally ignores the Bid. It can be a literal Turning Away, by rolling over in the bed perhaps, or symbolica, by disappearing into the newspaper or, more likely, the nearest screen. Turning Against is much more violent. We can turn against by mocking the Bid or punishing the Bidder. “What do you want? Can’t you see I’m just trying to watch the game! Ugh!” Both are equally damaging. The difference is that Turning Against leads into Conflict. Turning Away leads to Disengagement

So get good at Turning Towards. It takes practice, but the good news is the research shows that Turning Towards leads to more Turning Towards. It’s a positive feedback cycle. And practically, there’s really no difference between Turning Towards and Enthusiastically Turning Towards. That means, you don’t have to say, “Yeah sure! You betcha! You look amazing! I’d love to pass the guacamole! Let’s get busy with the sexytime!” It’s simply means you have to be attuned to your partners Bids and respond with a kind awareness.

I have to confess, I’m not that great at Turning Towards. Or at least I didn’t use to be until I started practicing. For me, I started by just hearing the sound of my wife’s voice. Not listening, just hearing. I’d hear the sounds and then realize I needed to pay attention. I’d literally take a moment or two remember the sounds I heard and then reassemble them in my brain so that I could actually understand them. Then, I’d formulate a response, any response, that indicated that I was interested in loving my wife.

You’ve learned by now that my brain works in odd ways, but the point is that it works. Feel free to start anywhere. Again, you don’t have to have a complete strategy mapped out. Turning Toward fuels Turning Towards and keeps you on the left side of the picture. When you get good at Turning, you’ll spend a lot more time in the realm of stability and intimacy. To be sure, sometimes you have to go through Conflict to get there, but you can save yourself a lot of grief by building up the kind of positive sentiment that leads to relationship satisfaction. 

I’d love to hear about your experiences with and strategies for Bids and Turning. And I’d be curious to hear your ideas about how to bring clarity to the lifecycle of relationship conflict and repair. Bonus points to anyone who emails me a coherent drawing of the picture in my brain. As always, you can reach me at or on Twitter at @KZBrittle.


This is Zach's 20th posting of his Relationship Alphabet column on The Gottman Relationship Blog. If you missed a posting or are reading for the first time, you can catch up on his column here. Zach is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist in Seattle, WA specializing in couples therapy. You can learn more about Zach and inquire about availability at Follow Zach on Twitter @kzbrittle.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Announcing The Gottman Relationship Checkup

Announcing The Gottman Relationship Checkup
By Michael Fulwiler

After years of planning, writing, coding, and troubleshooting, we are excited to announce that The Gottman Relationship Checkup will launch to the general public on Monday, October 6, 2014. Created by Drs. John & Julie Gottman in collaboration with The Gottman Institute, The Gottman Relationship Checkup supports couples and clinicians by providing in-depth, scientific evaluations of a relationship's strengths and challenges.

Fully HIPAA compliant with 480 questions in 5 unique sections, our assessment not only accurately evaluates a relationship's strengths and challenges, but also provides personalized feedback. Here’s how it works:

Clinicians must first apply to become a member of The Gottman Relationship Checkup. Once approved, they can invite their couples to complete the questionnaire. Before the couple can start the assessment, each partner must create a personal profile that requires them to have a unique login and password. This password is specific to their information and responses. Neither partner can access the other’s information at any time, and we encourage that they not share their information with each other. 

When both partners have completed their individual assessments, a notification will be sent to the clinician that the scores, areas of concern in the relationship, and suggested treatment options are available on the clinician's dashboard. This information is not shared with The Gottman Institute. After receiving the scores, the therapist will be able to review the analysis with the couple and discuss any suggested steps for improving their relationship.

If you are a clinician and have used or are currently using the standard Gottman Assessments, this online tool has been adapted from the paper version and has been revised with the addition of new questionnaires for the online format. The online version provides you, the clinician, with a comprehensive assessment, automatic scoring, and a recommended comprehensive treatment plan for your clients, saving you time and effort while improving accuracy.

We will continue to share more information about The Gottman Relationship Checkup as it becomes closer to launch on October 6th. Until then, be sure to “Like” The Gottman Institute on Facebook for updates and announcements.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reflections on Doing Gottman Method Couples Therapy with a Native American Population

              Via Matika Wilbur

Reflections on Doing Gottman Method Couples Therapy with a 
Native American Population
By Michael Brown, Certified Gottman Therapist 

I have often been asked by colleagues and peers: Is Gottman Method Couples Therapy culturally-appropriate for Native Americans? Does it fit the experience and reality of Native American couples? Having done Gottman Method Couples Therapy on the White Mountain Apache Reservation for almost five years, I believe that it is culturally-appropriate and effective with White Mountain Apache clients. In order to demonstrate this, I will first briefly describe the White Mountain Apache Reservation, my professional experience there, and Gottman Method Couples Therapy. I will then give specific examples of why I think that Gottman Method Couples Therapy works well with the White Mountain Apache population and, in the end, I will provide a caveat.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe

The White Mountain Apache Reservation is located in east-central Arizona, consisting of 1.67 million acres (over 2,600 square miles). There are approximately 15,000 tribal members living on and off the Reservation. The majority of the population lives in Whiteriver, the seat of the Tribal government. Culturally, there is a clan system and extended families are extremely important and tend to be matrilineal. Like in other parts of Native America, there are very high indices of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse (primarily alcohol), suicide attempts and completions, juvenile delinquency, and violent crime.

My Professional Experience With the White Mountain Apache Tribe

I have worked with and for the White Mountain Apache Tribe for the past five years: three in suicide prevention and intervention with Apache Behavioral Health Services, and almost two with Rainbow Treatment Center, where I coordinate family-centered substance abuse treatment programs. I came here shortly after earning my Masters of Science in Counseling in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy and obtaining my associate license. I obtained my independent license here and earned my certification as a Certified Gottman Therapist here.

Between single-couple therapy and multi-couple therapy, I have probably done more than 400 hours of Gottman Method Couples Therapy with White Mountain Apache tribal members. In addition to my job-specific duties in suicide prevention and intervention, I did over 60 hours of Gottman Method Couples Therapy with couples while at Apache Behavioral Health Services. Many of these couples were in acute distress and identified intimate partner conflict as a precipitating factor in their suicidal ideation or attempt. At Rainbow Treatment Center, I helped organize and facilitate the first-ever couples (6-week) day treatment cycle using Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Twice a day we did couples therapy with the group: an hour in the morning on building friendship and intimacy and an hour and a half in the afternoon on managing conflict. I also designed and facilitate a multi-couple outpatient treatment program for substance abuse and domestic violence using Domestic Violence-Focused Couples Therapy (Stith, McCollum, & Rosen, 2007) and Gottman Method Couples Therapy. I also presented on Gottman Method Couples Therapy at the 2012 Rainbow Treatment Center Couples Retreat (as a guest speaker), facilitated Gottman Method Couples Therapy at the 2013 Couples Retreat, and coordinated with Dr. Bob Navarra to launch the maiden voyage of “A Roadmap for the Journey: A Gottman Workshop for Couples Embracing Recovery” at the 2014 Couples Retreat.

Gottman Method Couples Therapy

Gottman Method Couples Therapy is based on the 40 years of breakthrough research of John Gottman, Ph.D., on marriage and relationships with more than 3000 couples, including one group for more than 20 years. John Gottman’s research has focused on relationship stability and divorce communication and involved the study of emotions, physiology, and communication.

In the process, John Gottman observed what he came to call the Masters and Disasters of Relationship. He defines Masters of Relationship as two people who stay together, who report high relational satisfaction, and who like and enjoy one another. These relationships are suffused with a much higher percentage of positive interaction, even when discussing a conflict, than a couple in distress (Gottman & Schwartz Gottman, 2013, p. 2).

Through multi-dimensional, thorough, and extensive research, John Gottman was able to decipher what strengthens relationships; that is, what keeps a relationship stable and vibrant. He learned that couples who stay happily married have everyday interactions with one another that are very positive. Secondly, the couples who stay happily married are far less negative and more gentle in the ways they handle conflict. Through intervention studies, he learned that these were not only the effect of happy relationships, but also the causes (Gottman & Schwartz Gottman, 2013, p. 2).

The results of John Gottman’s studies form the basis of Gottman Method Couples Therapy and the workshops.

The basic assumptions of Gottman Method Couples Therapy are as follows:

1.  Couples therapy is primarily dyadic. In this therapy it is the goal to move the therapeutic context to a dyadic context in which the therapist acts as a coach.
2.  Couples need to be in emotional states to learn how to cope with and change them. Much of the emotional learning in marital therapy may be state-dependent. This means, unless we allow individuals to become as emotional in therapy as they do at home, they may not have access to important learning we have offered once they leave the therapy session.
3.  The therapist should not do the soothing. Partners should learn how to self-soothe and even to soothe one another.
4.  Interventions should seem easy to do. Interventions should not seem costly psychologically or appear foreign to people.
5.  Marital therapy should be primarily a positive affective experience.
6.  I [John Gottman] am not idealistic about marriage and it’s potential. The goal is fostering a “good enough marriage.” (Gottman, 1999, pp. 179-185)

Why I Think That Gottman Method Couples Therapy is a Good Fit

Based on my experience, I think that Gottman Method Couples Therapy works well with White Mountain Apache clients because of the assumptions behind it, the metaphors used in Gottman Method Couples Therapy are easily accessible and have resonance, and the interventions respond to the particular relational needs and dynamics of White Mountain Apache couples.

First, in my experience, Gottman Method Couples Therapy fits well when working with White Mountain Apaches because of the assumptions above. The dyadic focus gives the clients the skills that they need to improve their friendship and intimacy and manage conflict on their own. Since most therapy here is very brief and the more concrete the better, the focus on skills and on the dyad is very instrumental. The assumption of state-dependent learning is also very helpful since, in my experience, many of my clients have poor emotion regulation skills. Allowing them to experience emotional states in session and teaching them how to cope with and change them at the same time, helps them to better access their learning while under stress outside the therapeutic context. Helping partners to self-soothe and to soothe one another is critical, since flooding and diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) are very common, in my experience.

The assumptions that the interventions should be easy to do and that marital therapy should primarily be a positive affective experience are equally important because, in my experience, many clients are afraid of and reluctant to participate in marital or couples therapy. In order for them to stay engaged in and benefit from marital therapy, the interventions need to relatively easy and the affective experience positive. Finally, the goal of fostering a “good enough marriage” is a worthwhile and achievable goal. Expecting a “perfect” marriage would be unrealistic and, very possibly, harmful.

Second, in my experience, the metaphors of Gottman Method Couples Therapy, particularly the Sound Relationship House and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (I.e. Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling) are easily accessible to and resonate with my White Mountain Apache clients. Everyone understands about building a solid house. My clients easily grasp the Four Horsemen and become quite adept at identifying when they are occurring.

Third, the interventions of Gottman Method Couples Therapy are very helpful for my White Mountain Apache clients, particularly the Gottman Love Map Exercise, the Aftermath of a Fight Questionnaire, teaching Softened Startup, Self-Soothing, and the Dreams Within Conflict Intervention.

Many of the couples that I see had a very brief courtship period before “getting together” and that period was often dominated by the mutual abuse of alcohol. As a result, they did not build Love Maps (I.e. a cognitive map of their partner’s inner psychological world, his or her worries, stresses, joys, and dreams). However, if there is just a speck of fondness and admiration between them, Love Maps can still be built. The Love Map Cards provide couples with a structured and enjoyable format for building Love Maps. We have used the Love Map Cards at the annual couples retreat, in the couples day treatment cycle, and in the multi-couple treatment program and it has been a pleasure to see how much our couples enjoy the exercise.

The Aftermath of a Fight or Regrettable Incident Questionnaire is probably the intervention that I have used most with couples. The purpose of the Aftermath of a Fight Intervention is to help couples process their last fight without entering back into the fight. The couple that I worked the longest with worked primarily on this skill. When they completed therapy, they told me: “We still fight, but not like we used to and we come back together sooner and process the fight on our own.” This is a couple that used to stonewall each other and go their separate ways for days; now they process their fights the same day, usually within a matter of an hour or two. That, in my book, is progress and, for them, is a “good enough marriage.”

Teaching softened startup is critical for my clients. Startup, the way a topic of disagreement is broached, is critically important in predicting marital outcomes. How a conflict discussion begins usually determines how it ends. If it starts harshly, it will end harshly. If it starts softly, it is more likely to end better. Harsh startup by the female partner is associated with relational or marital instability and divorce or separation (Gottman, 1999, p. 41). Women are consistently more likely to initiate conflict discussions and to use harsh startup. In my experience, startup in the couples that I have worked with is very harsh, so teaching couples how to initiate conflict discussions with softened startup is very helpful and effective for them in terms of managing conflict.

Teaching clients to soothe themselves and their partner is equally important. I have observed that when emotions and conflict are involved, my clients become quickly flooded and experience diffuse physiological arousal (DPA), which is to say that the body’s general alarm mechanism is activated and individuals experience physiological changes which make it harder to problem solve. Individuals in DPA only hear and see signals of danger; nothing else. They are more likely to attack or be defensive verbally. Empathy and creative thinking fly out the window; along with positive communications skills (Gottman & Schwartz Gottman, 2013, p. 37). With my clients, this usually results in domestic violence, a drinking binge, and/or a partner leaving for days or weeks. Therefore, it is important to teach couples to recognize when they are getting flooded and how to take a break and soothe themselves. A pulse rate above 95 beats per minute is a good indicator that someone is flooded. I once had a client that got up to 140 bpm in session. After doing a relaxation exercise with him, his pulse rate was 55, below the average rate of 60. He now uses the relaxation exercise to soothe himself when he is becoming flooded.

Finally, the Dreams Within Conflict Intervention is most useful in helping couples move from gridlock to dialogue on perpetual issues. The idea behind the intervention is that most gridlocked, perpetual conflict results from life dreams in conflict and the goal is to help couples dialogue about the conflict without getting back into gridlock. I have found that once couples understand the life dreams behind their partner’s position, there is a great softening that occurs. For example, I worked with one couple that, whenever they would argue, he would try to leave and she would try to retain him, and that is where the domestic violence would often begin. He grew up in a home where he witnessed his father brutally beat his mother and swore that he would not be like his father. Therefore, when he and his wife start to fight, he immediately starts to leave to avoid violence. She grew up in a home where her father abandoned her and her mother frequently and, eventually, all together, so she would try to retain her husband because his wanting to leave triggered her abandonment issues. Once they understood each other’s experience, they were able to soften their approach to each other in conflict and to take a negotiated time out instead of one wanting to leave and the other trying to retain the other.

One Caveat: The Uninvited-Invited Guest

There is one caveat or reservation to the effectiveness of Gottman Method Couples Therapy with a Native American population: the uninvited-invited guest of substance abuse (a concept that I will explore in a future essay). Any couples therapy approach with a Native American population has to take in account and address the high rates of substance abuse and the high correlation between substance abuse and intimate partner conflict on most reservations. In truth, most of our couples do okay as long as they are sober, but intimate partner violence on the Reservation almost always occurs in the context of substance abuse. I once asked our first responders what percentage of domestic violence calls involved substance abuse. Unofficially, they told me that substance use is involved in 90 to 95 percent of the domestic violence calls that they receive.

When people are intoxicated or under the influence of a substance, they cannot use the conflict management skills that they learn in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Sobriety is a pre-condition for the effectiveness of Gottman Method Couples Therapy. However, I believe that sobriety and the relationship can be worked on simultaneously and that the triggers and skills (I.e. stress reduction, managing conflict, creating a sober-supportive environment, etc.) for both overlap.


Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Gottman, J., & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2013). The Art & Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples. Seattle: The Gottman Institute.

Stith, S.M., McCollum, E.E., & Rosen, K.H. (2007). Domestic Violence Focused Couples Treatment: Multi-Couples Treatment Manual. Falls Church, VA: Virginia Tech.


This article originally appeared on the Happy Couples Happy Communities blog here. With 10 years of experience working with couples and families in community mental health and substance abuse treatment, Michael's mission is to bring quality, research-based couples workshops to non-profit organizations and communities with high needs.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Meet Jeremy Cowart, the Most Influential Photographer on the Web

Meet Jeremy Cowart, the Most Influential Photographer on the Web
By Michael Fulwiler 

Jeremy Cowart is having a good year. Recently named the most influential photographer on the web by Huffington Post, he launched a new social network/community called OKDOTHIS in June and celebrated his 15th wedding anniversary with his wife Shannon in August. We caught up with Jeremy and asked him about his first date with Shannon, the secret to his happy marriage, and his favorite part about being married. Learn more about Jeremy on his website here

Q. We loved your photos that you shared on your 15-year wedding anniversary, especially the one of you and Shannon on your first date in 1996. What do you remember about that first date, nearly 20 years later? What stands out to you? 

A. I just remember that I loved being with her. It wasn't a typical teenage love thing. It felt more like a best friend for life kind of thing. Two weeks after that date, I started telling friends and family that I'd marry her. 2 years later, I did. I had good instincts! I also remember noticing how she cared for others and had a big heart for the homeless. She was very different from all the other girls.

Q. You say that a secret to the success of your marriage has been that you and your wife have "never taken ourselves or life in general too seriously." Can you talk about that? What role has humor played in your marriage? 

A. Yeah, we have a very funny, goofy marriage. If you've ever seen Anchorman where Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone talk smack back and forth, then you've seen my wife and I talking smack. We do it all the time. And strangely enough, it works in terms of ending conflict. Not all the time but a lot of the time. She can be genuinely mad at me for something and threaten me by saying, "I will hit this eject button and eject you out of the car." I'll respond with, "Oh yeah? I'll eject your face." We basically start one-upping each other and the serious moment changes to us dying laughing. So that's a good example of how we don't take things too seriously. And we're just dead honest with each other. Yesterday, she was telling me that I'm getting a little thick and need to hit the treadmill (laughs). We can have those honest conversations without getting too offended.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to a couple getting married tomorrow? This can be something you've learned in your own marriage, or advice that was once given to you. 

A. Gosh, this is a long list, but I'd say let go of expectations. There's going to be an endless list of faults in your spouse that you didn't see coming. Then another endless list of faults with the spouse’s family (laughs). So, keep your expectations low and let everything be a pleasant surprise. Also, in this day and age, unplug from social media and the internet as often as possible. Don't let your phone time be your marriage. Don't take your phones to dinner. Keep technology out of the bedroom and just get to know each other. My wife and I spend a lot of time on our phones, but we didn't have them 15 years ago obviously and I'm really thankful for that. They can be a massive distraction from each other.

Q. What has your career as a photographer taught you about how to have a good marriage? 

A. I'd say it's taught me about trust. My wife has an immense trust in me. Not every wife would allow their husbands to photograph beautiful people and beautiful women for a living, or go on tour for 3 months with Britney Spears. In fact, it would really be hard for most women to allow that of their husbands. But she trusts me. And the funny thing is, that trust only makes me want to further that trust. It's the most attractive thing in the world. Trust is beautiful and jealousy is ugly. It's as simple as that.

Q. With such a busy schedule, what strategies do you have to make time for your marriage? Do you schedule regular rituals of connection? 

A. I think it's pretty simple. You just choose family every chance you get. When I fly to an event in another city to speak on Friday, I don't hang out all weekend. I fly back home as soon as I can to spend the rest of the weekend with my wife and kids. I go home at 5:00 every day and take my kids to school in the mornings. I'm just there every chance I can be and I know my wife appreciates that.

Q. What's your favorite part about being married to your wife? 

A. It goes back to the friendship I felt on day one. We're still best friends after 18 years of knowing each other. She gets me, I get her. We've never had "the bad year" and never really fought either. As my wife once said, "Our lives are not perfect but they're perfect for us."