John Gottman on Couples Therapy

John Gottman on Couples Therapy

by Randall C. Wyatt
The preeminent couples therapy researcher John Gottman discusses what works in couples therapy, what makes for happy marriages, and what he learned from his own marriage.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More


The Interview

Randall C. Wyatt: Welcome, Dr. Gottman. Thank you for being with us today and sharing your insights and work with our readers at Many therapists are familiar with your couple's and marital research, which you have written about extensively in several books and articles. Today I want to focus more on the therapist's end of it as much as the couple's end of it, because this is going to be going out to therapists of all stripes. You have often quoted Dan Wile, who said that when you choose a marriage partner, you choose a set of problems, a whole set of difficulties. That doesn't sound very hopeful. Is that as pessimistic as it sounds?
John Gottman: Well, it's interesting. It changes the way you think about marital therapy.

When we brought couples back into the laboratory four years later to talk again about their major issue in their marriage,

69 percent of the time the couples had the same problems, same issues, and they were talking about them in exactly the same way
69 percent of the time the couples had the same problems, same issues, and they were talking about them in exactly the same way, so that the instability in the marital arrangement was enormous. Still, 31% of the problems had been solved.

When we looked at the masters in marriage, how did they go about solving these solvable problems? That's when we discovered this whole pattern of really being gentle in the way they approached solvable problems - a softened start-up, particularly guys accepting influence from women, but women also said things to men, it was a balance, they both were doing it. The ability - again as Dan Wile says - to have a recovery conversation after a fight. So it wasn't that we should admonish couples not to fight but that we should admonish them to be able to repair it and recover from it. That became a focus of the marital therapy that I designed.

In terms of the unsolvable or perpetual problems, we found two kinds of couples, and the optimistic part is we found a lot of couples who really had sort of adapted to their problems.

It's not that they liked it but they were coping with it and they were able to establish a dialogue with one another about it. Okay, you're not happy about it but you learn you can cope with it, have a sense of humor about it, and be affectionate even while you are disagreeing, and soothe one another, de-escalate the conflict. And then the other kind of couple who is really gridlocked on the problem. Every time they talked about it, it was this meeting of oppositional positions; there was no compromising.

The Myth of Active Listening

RW: Many couple's therapists, as you know, recommend "active listening" and "I messages," and that's pretty much the bedrock or the history of couples therapy in this country. Satir and Rogers, among others, advocated these approaches yet you're critical.
JG: Well, I used to recommend it. The history of where it came from is that Bernard Guerney took it from Carl Rogers' client-centered therapy. Most of the techniques of marital therapy have come from extrapolations from individual therapy. Carl Rogers would be accepting and understanding and genuine and the client theoretically would grow and develop and open up.
RW: So each member of the couple could then be a therapist to the other person?
JG: Yes, suggesting that the same thing could be applied to marriages is a big leap because, first of all, there's a hierarchical relationship between therapists and client. The client is paying, the therapist isn't paying. Usually the client is complaining about somebody else, so it's very easy for the therapist to say: "Oh, that's terrible what you have to put up with, your mother is awful, or your husband, or whatever it is. I really understand how you feel."

But in marriages, it's different because now you're the target, and your partner is saying: "You're terrible," and you're supposed to be able to empathize and be understanding. We found in our research that hardly anybody does that, even in great marriages. When somebody attacks you, you attack back.

RW: "I feel you're a jerk," instead of "You are a jerk," so the I statements are covert attacks?
JG: But that wouldn't really put the kibosh on active listening, because even if people didn't do it naturally, you could train people to do that. In the Munich Marital Study, a well controlled study, Kurt Hahlweg did the crucial test and he found that the modal couple after intensive training in active listening were still distressed. And the ones who did show some improvement had relapsed after eight months. It was the worst intervention in the Munich Marital Study! I'm not against empathy,
I'm just thinking active listening is not a very good tool for accomplishing it.
I'm just thinking active listening is not a very good tool for accomplishing it.
RW: Tell me why, in particular?
JG: Well, it kind of makes sense. Let's say my wife is really angry with me because I repeatedly haven't balanced the checkbook and the checks bounce. I keep saying: "I'm sorry, and I'll try not to do it again." So finally she gets angry and confronts me in a therapy session. What would it accomplish if I say: "I hear what you're saying, you're really angry with me, and I can understand why you're angry with me because I'm not balancing the checkbook." That's not going to make her feel any better, I still haven't balanced the damned checkbook! So I've got to really change - real empathy comes from going: "You know, I understand how upset you are. It really hurts me that I'm messing up this way, and I've got take some action." Real empathy comes from feeling your partner's pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.
RW: Doing what you can do?
JG: Yes, doing what you can do.
RW: You may not be a good accountant but you can try.
JG: You can try, right. So I think it's really kind of artificial to just say: "I hear what you're saying, I can understand that, that makes sense to me, and then we switch back and forth." Have you really engaged in empathy?
RW: You might have to work a lot harder to show somebody you understand, that you know what they're talking about, and that it matters.
JG: So here's what the secret is, I think here's what couples do who really are headed for divorce. They take the problem and they put it on their partner: "The problem is you, and your personality, your character; you're a screw-up." That's an attack, and that's the fundamental attribution error that everybody's making: "I'm okay, you're the problem, you're not okay." So then their partner responds defensively and denies responsibility and says: "You're the problem; I'm not the problem."

What the masters do is they have the problem and it's kind of like a soccer ball they're kicking around with each other. They say: "We've got this problem. Let's take a look at it, let's kick it around. How do you see it? I see it this way, and we kick it around." And all of a sudden I can have empathy for your position because you're telling me what you contribute to the problem.

RW: One person has to break the cycle and then -
JG: And move that from defense mode into a collaborative mode.
RW: So have you found that if one person does that, some momentum starts going and things start changing?
JG: Rarely. It usually has to be both people. So one person is admitting fault and saying "I'm sorry" all the time, the other person is saying:
"Yeah, you're a screw-up. No wonder you're apologizing, you need to apologize, you should get down on your knees and apologize."
"Yeah, you're a screw-up. No wonder you're apologizing, you need to apologize, you should get down on your knees and apologize." And then eventually that person who's saying I'm sorry all the time feels pretty angry and pretty much like it's not fair, it's not balanced. There has to be a real balance, I think, or has to be a perceived balance, it has to feel fair.

"Yes Dear" and What Men Can Learn from Bill Cosby.

RW: I remember Bill Cosby having a father-son talk on the old Cosby Show. His teenage son said: "My girlfriend is still mad at me, I screwed up! I said I was sorry, but she won't forgive me. What can I do, Dad? I want her back more than anything." And Cosby says in his Cosby voice: "Son, you're not done til' she says you are done." His son dejectedly says: "Well, how many times do I have to keep apologizing, Dad?" And Cosby says: "Until she begs you to stop." This sounds similar to what has been called your "Yes, Dear" approach, which has been lampooned on the Politically Incorrect TV show. It sounds cliche, but what are Cosby and you really getting at?
JG: There's this great Ogden Nash poem that I think gets Bill Cosby's point, and I'll paraphrase it:

To keep brimming the marital cup, 
when wrong admit it, 
when right shut up!

It's a great line. It's about respect, it's about honor, and the idea of giving in, of saying I'm sorry, that really honors both people. So what we find is that, first of all, just like Bill Cosby said, the husband is really critical in this equation because women are doing a lot of accepting influence in their interaction. That's what we find and it doesn't predict anything, because many women are doing it at such a high level. But there's more variability in guys. Some guys are really in there and these are the masters. They're not saying: "Yes, dear." What they're really saying is: "You know, I can see some points in what you're saying make sense to me. And there's other stuff you're saying I just don't agree with. Let's talk about it." Now that husband is a different husband from the husband who says: "No. I'm not buying any of this!" Then the husband becomes an obstacle.

If you don't accept some influence, then you become an obstacle and people find a way around you and you have no power. So the violent guys that Neil Jacobson and I studied, they're always saying: "No!" to offers to communicate better. No matter what was said, they would bat it back like baseball players at batting practice. Wham! And they turn out to be enormously powerless in their relationships. I think that's one of the reasons they resort to violence, because they have no influence in any of their personal relationships.

RW: And in couple's therapy, oftentimes when dealing with the aggressor, they're told to basically give up all their power, both illegitimate and legitimate, and so then they're powerless again, and the cycle begins anew.
JG: That doesn't work either. Morihei Ueshiba, the Japanese genius who invented Aikido, had that very point, his whole approach to negotiating conflict, which is you need to yield to be powerful.
RW: When pushed, pull, when pulled, push, and roll.
JG: That's right. So it's not that the guys were saying: "Yes, dear," as the parody went, and, sure, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, anything you say." They were saying: "I can see this point; let's kick this around. Here's my point of view. I accept some of what you're saying but not all of it." Usually the wives will be saying a similar thing. And then they really start persuading one another and compromising and coming up with a solution.
RW: You've used "masters" several times, by that you mean?
JG: I just mean people who stay married and kind of like each other. I have a low criterion for mastery, and I actually do have a lot of awe for these marriages. We've studied couples who have been together 50 years. We've looked at masters from the newlywed stage through the seventies, the transition to retirement people who are 70 and 80 years old now. When I say they're masters I really sit down and watch them, and my wife and I try to learn from what we've learned in the research and acquired in our own relationship.

What Gottman Learned from His Own Marriage

RW: I was curious about that. In your own relationships in marriage and life, have you applied what you have learned personally in working with couples, and vice versa?
JG: Absolutely. For example, when Julie and I do our workshops with couples, one of the main messages we give is that we've found that really good marriages, people who are really happy, have terrible fights, where they're thinking at the end of the fight: Why did I marry this person?
RW: Not right before the workshop, I hope?
JG: Well, sometimes we have. We've had a fight the morning of the workshop and we're not talking to each other before the workshop. So one thing we did in the workshop is we processed our earlier fight in front of the audience. One time I got up in the morning and my wife had had a really bad dream about me. I was a real rotten guy in her dream. She was mad at me! I was being really nice to her in real life but in her dream I was a rotten SOB. So I try to be real understanding but she is still mad. And then finally I said: "You know, this isn't really fair because I didn't do this stuff" and so I got angry with her. She went in the shower and she's crying, and so I got in the shower and tried to comfort her. She wouldn't be comforted by me because now, I'd really made her angry. We talked about this in front of the audience for the first time: "We've had this fight, and this is not unusual. Periodically we have disagreements, stuff like this happens, and here's how we talk about it."

My wife and I once had a disagreement that took five years to resolve. It started out as a perpetual problem, a real big difference between us that wasn't reconcilable. We worked on it and we talked about it every day and we finally made a compromise. But it still wasn't fully resolved and five years later we actually solved this perpetual problem. It stopped being a problem, which happens occasionally in our research, too. But most of the time they don't get resolved at all. And somebody in the audience said: "Well, that's amazing that it took you that long. You guys, you're teaching this workshop." And we said: "Well, this is the way it is in good relationships."

RW: Why did it take so long? You're both smart people, I am sure.
But she's so stubborn. You don't know what I have to go through. And that's what she says about me. That's what people are really saying.
But she's so stubborn. You don't know what I have to go through. And that's what she says about me. That's what people are really saying.
RW: It seems there are three issues: prevention of fights when possible, how to argue when you do fight, and how to recover when it gets away from you.
JG: Exactly!

When Compromising Too Soon is a Problem

RW: You brought up the need to compromise. Dan Wile (see Couples Therapy: A Non-Traditional Approach) suggested that sometimes people compromise too soon even when they feel strongly about an issue. By the time they talk, neither one of them will compromise anymore. Each person has already compromised once, though their partner does not know that or appreciate it. And then both people come across as more stubborn then they actually are.
JG: Right, I think that's a very good point. I think Dan Wile is a very wise person, a wonderful therapist, and most of his insights are supported by the research I do. We have him come up to Washington every year and do a workshop for our therapists at our marriage clinic. I think one of the great things that Dan Wile said is people shouldn't compromise so much.
RW: Yes, that sometimes compromise is a solution that becomes a new problem.
JG: A lot of times they're giving up their ideals, they're giving up the romance and passion of their selves. They've giving up something really essential. That's what the secret is to ending the gridlock in these perpetual problems; to realize that there's a reason why people can't compromise. They have a personal philosophical ideal that they're holding on to and it's very essential to who they are as a person.


if you can make the marriage safe enough, you can take those fists and really open them up, and there's a dream inside of each fist, there's a life dream.
if you can make the marriage safe enough, you can take those fists and really open them up, and there's a dream inside of each fist, there's a life dream. When people see what the dream is and what the narrative story is, what Michael White would call the narrative behind it, the history of this life dream, usually both people want to honor their partner's dream.

RW: They may not be able to go along with it all, but honor is different than just kowtowing.
JG: Exactly. There are many ways of honoring someone's dream. You can support it, understand it, financially support it, or you can talk about it.
RW: Here's another area where you go against the grain of couples' therapy tradition. Often couples therapists begin their books criticizing romantic pop songs or idealistic romance movies or novels. You say "Don't give up those dreams, don't give up your fantasies, you may not get them all but don't give them up."
JG: I'm basing this a lot on the work of Don Baucom who has looked at this idea: Is it true that we have too high of standards and that's why we're unhappy and so should we lower our standards? He found just the opposite. He found people who have idealistic standards, who really want to be treated well and want romance and want passion, they get that, and the people who have low standards, they get that. It's better to really ask for what you want in a relationship and try to be treated the way you want to be treated.
RW: You've critiqued two pillars of the couple's therapy accepted truths. Active listening is not the be-all/end all to accomplish empathy, and romance and hopes should not be cast aside as merely wishful thinking. So how do therapists respond to this? Are they shifting? What's your perception?
JG: I think there's a certain kind of therapist that's real interested in what I have to say, those interested in scientific validation for ideas. Not every therapist finds it appealing. I've tried to create a psychology of marriage from the way real, everyday people go about the business of being married, instead of taking it from psychotherapy.

What Works in Couple's Therapy?

RW: You've done in vivo research, looking at couples in their homes, in the lab. Now you are doing the outcome studies. How does it look?
JG: We're now doing the outcome studies to see whether it will work. What came out of this way of studying normal couples, everyday couples as well as the masters of marriage, was a theory, and I think that's what therapists find useful. Pieces of it have some evidence, but it still needs more confirmation. For example, if you know that the basis of being able to repair a conflict is the quality of the friendship in the marriage, then
you can individualize therapy for each couple and that's the task that every therapist is confronting.
you can individualize therapy for each couple and that's the task that every therapist is confronting. We confront it every day in our consulting rooms.

We look at three profiles in every marriage - the friendship profile, the conflict profile and the shared meanings profile - which is creating a sense of purpose and shared meaning together. Then on the basis of that we think: Well, they need this kind of intervention and that kind of intervention, but it really emerges from the process in the consulting hour from what the couple brings.

RW: Many therapists want more than a cookie cutter type of therapy? they want to individualize their work with couples vs. using only one theoretical model.
JG: That's right. The interesting thing to me is that my research supports a systems view, that really is husband affecting wife and wife affecting husband in a circle. The existential view is supported because you can't just look at what these gridlock conflicts are about; you have to look underneath at what the life dream is. Then these dreams have narratives, so narrative therapy is supported, and they usually go back to the person's childhood and they go back to have symbolic meanings about the way they've been traumatized in other situations, so a psychodynamic point of view is also supported. You get a behavioral view supported because you find when you look at the evidence that often the best way to effect change is changing the behavior rather than trying to change the perception of a person, and perception often follows behavior. So all these different kinds of therapies are supported by this research.
RW: There's something for everybody to be happy with.
JG: You have to really take a little from everybody to do good couple's therapy.
RW: When you went into couple's research, you had certain views of marriage and relationships. Which ones were debunked, and which ideas do you still hold on to, despite the research?
JG: Well, I went in with an open mind. When Bob Levenson and I started doing this research, we decided on a multi-method approach. We thought perception must be important, so we showed people their videotapes and interviewed them about what they saw on their tapes. We interviewed them more globally about the history of their families - multi-generational perspective must be important. Asked about their philosophy of marriage, how they thought about the conflict and what their worldviews were about their relationship, what their purposes were. And we thought emotion must be important, so we scored facial expressions and non-verbal behavior and voice tone. We tried to look at everything. We looked at couples in all these contexts, whether they were conflicting or talking about how their day went or a positive situation, with no instructions at all, and we tried to see what would emerge from the data.

I thought active listening would be powerful. People just didn't do it. For a long time I thought we were getting evidence that it was happening, but it wasn't until I started doing workshops with clinicians that I couldn't find any examples of it. I went to my observational coding team: "Help me find some examples," and they went: "Oh, God, we don't know how to break this to you but we haven't found any examples." And I said:

"Why didn't you tell me?" and they said: "Well, we didn't want to hurt your feelings." So I was blown away by it.
"Why didn't you tell me?" and they said: "Well, we didn't want to hurt your feelings." So I was blown away by it.

RW: Researcher and assistant bias?
JG: That's right. So my staff was really protecting me. I saw that I was wrong about this and had written about it in print. I really had to eat my words. I think it's important to do that, to find out these things. I also thought that what would really work in conflict is people being honest and direct. Confronting each other saying: "You know, you do this and it really makes me angry," and the other person would not get very defensive. Boy, that wasn't true. The masters were not doing a lot of this clashing and confronting stuff. They were softening the way they presented the issue and giving appreciations while they were disagreeing.
RW: They can also hear some feedback. They weren't just closed to it.
JG: They weren't closed to it, because the partner was using humor: "I appreciated you taking that drive, it was so nice and I know you were tired." And the other person wouldn't see that as gratuitous flattery, and say: "Thank you very much," and really appreciate those comments.

Happy Marriages: What are They Made of?

RW: Is this something that is in these happily married people before they were married? Did they learn it? It is part of their family background?
JG: Well, we know a little bit. We know that personality, the enduring qualities that people bring to their relationships accounts for about 30 percent of it, how conversations begin could be a moodiness and so on.

But then there's the fit between two people. Let's say I select somebody to marry and she's kind of a moody person, but it doesn't really bother me that much, I don't take it personally and we fit in terms of this. If she had married somebody else and if she comes in moody and all of a sudden they take it personally, that doesn't work.

Nathan Ackerman talked about this a long time ago in the thirties, saying that two neurotics can have a happy marriage if they don't push each other's buttons and they're respectful about what Tom Bradbury calls enduring vulnerabilities.

That's one thing we do in our therapy is really try to find out what are the enduring vulnerabilities in these two people, how does the marriage respect that?
That's one thing we do in our therapy is really try to find out what are the enduring vulnerabilities in these two people, how does the marriage respect that? How can we, in this marriage, not trample on those sensitivities so that person doesn't go nuts?

RW: It sounds like there's sensitivity to each person's vulnerabilities and meanings and not just an open-ended kind of experiential therapy. In the same way, how can the therapist appreciate what works for the couple already? It reminds me of - it will sound far afield, but since you mentioned baseball, stay with me - the old Boston player Carl Yastremski used to have his bat way up there, and some coach tried to change it. Maybe he holds his bat funny but it works for him. For couples, I fear that sometimes therapists have a view of just how things should be. The couple's doing fine, it's not a problem for them, and yet we're trying to fix it, the problem that doesn't exist.
JG: I think that's true. I think a lot of us come in with a sort of model of what good communication or intimacy should be, and it doesn't fit what this couple wants or desires or needs. We have to be very flexible and be able to move from one system to the other, and really speak in their language as well.

Future Breakthroughs?

RW: What's your next challenge in research? I see you have a book out on domestic violence and what works in couple's therapy (When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships). What's the next breakthrough on the horizon?
JG: The real challenge, I think, is to try to develop a therapy that fits certain kinds of people so that we're not doing the same thing for every couple. So we can do an assessment and say: "Oh, we need this kind of therapy for that couple, and this other couple doesn't need that, they need something quite different." We need to modify therapy to fit each particular couple.

And preventing relapse is the other challenge. We're trying to develop preventive approaches. We're doing things like arranging birth preparation classes to prepare people for what's going to happen for when the baby comes, because 70 percent of the time marital satisfaction goes down the tubes. We know marital conflict increases by a factor of nine.

Extra-marital affairs are another area where there hasn't been a single controlled outcome study, trying to help couples get over non-monogamy. At least if you're on the science bus you want more research-informed therapies. You can select from the clinical literature but it's hard to know which treatment approaches work best. Shirley Glass's is the one I really favor because it's based on more research. Another issue is co-existing problems like depression and marital trouble, or alcohol. O'Farrell and MacCready have approached alcoholism and marital distress and created an integrated program focusing on both issues in the same therapy; both were more effective.

RW: What is the most gratifying part of your work as a researcher, couple's or marital therapist?
JG: I'm really in this for knowledge. The deal I made with God is that I wanted to understand things: how relationships work, how to make them work, and I'm hoping that eventually this knowledge becomes widespread and well known. Just like we don't know very much about the guy who invented Velcro, we just use it. One of the things that I've really learned in the past five years is to make research and therapy a two-way communication. That's what needs to happen because up until now therapists have been on the firing line - developing these ideas in isolation.
RW: One thing that people enjoy about your books and your work is that it does bring research from the ivory towers of academia to therapists, to other people, in an everyday language.
JG: I think it's absolutely true that if the people come alive from the theory, then you know that it makes some sense. If you can actually use the ideas and put them into practice, in some concrete way in your own relationships and in work with clients, then you know that maybe it makes some sense, it's useful.
RW: That would be a good thing. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
JG: Thank you.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved. Published July 2000.
Order CE Test
$15.00 or 1.00 CE Point
Earn 1.00 Credits
Buy Now

*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

CE Test
John Gottman Dr. John Gottman is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and a world-renowned researcher in the area of family systems and couples dynamics. Dr. Gottman is the author of more than 100 research articles for professional journals and has authored, coauthored, or edited over 30 books. His most recent books are Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, The Heart of Parenting, When Men Batter Women, The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically-Based Marital Therapy, and Meta-Emotion: How Families Communicate Emotionally. His newest book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (May 2000), is a culminating work of his marriage research for the general public.
Randall C. Wyatt Randall C. Wyatt, PhD is a practicing psychologist in Oakland and Dublin, California. He specializes in working with post-traumatic stress, cross-cultural therapeutic relationships and couples therapy and has extensive teaching experience.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe outcomes of current couples and marital research
  • Critique the basic assumptions about couples therapy
  • Explain what makes couples and marriages successful

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here