How I Integrate Gottman Method Therapy and Susan Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy in My Work With Couples

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In the 1970’s and 1980’s, two pioneers in marital research were quietly gathering data on how to create happy lasting relationships. Dr. John Gottman’s and Dr. Susan Johnson’s research was initially known mostly among academic circles because therapists  were still afraid of doing couples therapy. Gottman’s and Johnson’s research brought an unprecedented empirical foundation to what was often considered chaotic, unpredictable, and thankless couples therapy work. Today, Gottman and Johnson have reached world renown and are considered two of the most influential figures in couples therapy, not just for academics but therapists as well as the general public. 

Difference in therapy approaches

The philosophical and technical differences between their approaches to relationship research and therapy have generated separate and passionate followers. Both researchers have developed unique models of successful adult love relationships, but from different points of view and different sets of data. Gottman gave us a science of healthy relationships from systematic longitudinal and observational research on couples not in therapy. He focused on both couples in distress (the Disasters of Relationships) as well as couples in lasting, satisfying relationships (the Masters of Relationships).

Susan Johnson, on the other hand, built her foundation of loving relationships on the theoretical framework of John Bowlby as well as thousands of hours of decoding and tracking couples therapy sessions. So Johnson’s model is an empirical model of couples therapy. Unfortunately the field of couples therapy is split into many different approaches, each vying for the highest status as the only model that works or the one model shown to have the best efficacy.  At the ground level where therapists are working with couples is distress, I argue that using just one model is limiting and potentially not helping couples.  Couples in distress want a therapist who understands their dilemmas and patterns accurately, has a roadmap to recovery, and is skilled at implementing the techniques.  

I propose that therapists working with couples should thoughtfully consider which model is best suited for which couples and when to bring in techniques from one approach or another to help a couple make progress on their stuck issues.  In this article, I describe my approach to integrating the Gottman method with Sue Johnson’s EFT.

Gottman Method

The Gottman method is the brainchild of both of Drs. John and Julie Gottman, John’s wife and co-creator of the Gottman Method.  The Gottmans bring a relationship skill building and existential lens while Sue Johnson is firmly grounded in Adult Attachment Theory. There are also differences in their view of couples therapy and the role of the therapist. The Gottmans warn against therapists becoming indispensable to the couple and encourage them to coach couples to manage their own physiology, conflict, or intimacy system. Johnson, on the other hand, uses the therapist as a “secure base” and encourages them to build a secure container in which the anxiously or avoidantly attached partner can take the risk of expressing vulnerable feelings and needs.

There may be other differences, but the exciting frontier is not in their uniqueness or differences but their growing confluence of concepts and ideas and the desire of therapists to integrate both approaches in a seamless couples therapy that can benefit both clinicians and couples.

Here is some of the common ground I see in Gottman and Johnson that allows me to flexibly shift from a relationship-building to an attachment-oriented therapist as the couple’s emotional system requires.

Alternating between and combining the methods

When a couple enters therapy with me, I begin with the Gottman Method. The Sound Relationship House is a simple, practical, and aspirational model that every couple can understand and adopt with little resistance. Who doesn’t want a relationship that has a wonderful friendship base, tackles gridlocked and perpetual conflict with ease and humor, and a shared meaning system that inspires the best in oneself?

The structured process of the Gottman assessment is reassuring, straightforward, and transparent. Couples appreciate being able to tell the story of their relationship, being heard separately and together, and being able to fill out the surveys and conduct a private review of their relationship strengths and growth edges. The contracting process inspires hope as each strength is highlighted and celebrated and growth edges are reassuringly connected with specific skills they will learn within a reasonable period of time. Couples feel a sense of promise and relief as they walk away with their Sound Relationship House magnets and a map of the journey they are going to embark on with my guidance.

And then the real work begins!

Both Gottman and Johnson recognize the necessity of an emotional focus and the powerful influence of attachment histories, styles, and internal working models in adult intimate relationships. I might be helping the couple replace their four horsemen with the appropriate antidotes, but a part of me is also tracking their negative emotional cycle. Often time the absorbing nature of negative emotions (Gottman) and the unresolved hurts and wounds (Johnson) lead to predictable negative cycles and prevent the couple from having honest and vulnerable conversations.

I might offer one partner the practical information about criticism and contempt as they struggle to understand how to express their frustration. Simultaneously I hear, validate, and explore the attachment needs and emotions of the other partner who is struggling with their internal reactions rooted in early childhood patterns that create both interpretations as well as action tendencies when confronted with conflict.  I have the relationship science and simple language of Gottman in my right hand and a more emotion-focused dynamic and process-oriented toolkit from Johnson in my left hand, and I weave both into the therapeutic process.

Integrating approaches

Similarly, I help couples process an argument with the Aftermath of a Regrettable Incident exercise and help them learn how to make their conflict discussions just a little bit better than the last time. At the same time, I look for the anatomy of the fight. Why was this particular argument more painful for the wife? Does her attachment history shed some light on her ability to let go of her anger? As they process the clearly laid out exercise and take the steps one at a time, the structure keeps the conversation safe and manageable. I use my skills as an attachment-oriented observer to help the withdrawn spouse re-engage, or I help the partner who is casting blame to soften their internal dialogue and reach out with tenderness.

Sometimes the integration of Gottman and Johnson is more obvious as when I am working with bids and turning towards and helping a couple process failed bids. I know from both the Gottmans and Johnson that not all hurts are the same and that some emotional injuries can be traumatic when they trigger deeply held beliefs about the self, the other, and about intimate relationships.

Gottman gives me the Sound Relationship House theory to help couples see the connection between the emotional bank account and how the friendship base downregulates negativity, increases positivity, intimacy, romance, and connection. Johnson gives me the tools to repair a depleted emotional bank account, to take couples gently through the process of first acknowledging and then healing attachment injuries, and restoring the bond that once existed.

Final thoughts

I do have to confess that the Gottman Method is my first love. The Gottmans paint the relationship landscape for me in a way that fits smoothly with the way I work. Johnson’s methods draw me into the turbulent waters of primary emotions that require more effort from me in order to stay afloat. I find that both are necessary. My hope is that the field of couples therapy embraces the technical flexibility afforded by integrative approaches as a new generation of couples bring us unique and challenging sources of pain that need to be addressed and resolved.  






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