Episode 160: The Sound Relationship House in the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling

Gottman Method of Couples Therapy

In this episode of our addiction and recovery podcast, Jackie talks about the Sound Relationship House, a key component of the Gottman Method, one of the most well known systems for couples counseling

Host and Utah-based therapist, Jackie Pack discusses how to build relationships that can withstand change, facing challenges, while experiencing growth and connection.

TRANSCRIPT: The Sound Relationship House in the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. A couple of items before we jump into today’s episode which is a continuation of our series on communication.

The first item, we have an intensive coming up in June 2020, and it is in dating in recovery, so if you are single and have tried dating or not tried dating because it’s too scary, whatever that is, if you want to get into relationships, we have a weekend intensive where we go over that and you leave with some really good information, a plan, an idea of where you are and what next steps look like from wherever you are. And you can find more about that intensive at onelayerdeeper.com. We’d love to have you join us.

Second, I’ve had a couple of emails as I’ve been doing this series on communication, and I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times–We have handouts that we give our couples, and so somebody emailed me inquiring about that.

So, I’m going to make those handouts available, the things that we give to our clients to practice in your relationship. You can use these handouts outside of sessions. You can pull them out when you’re getting stuck in communication or you just want to practice doing it well. Couples pull out these, they’re really designed by Gottman. Use them, so I’m going to make them available for you to download the handouts that we use with our clients.

So, in today’s episode, I want to talk about kind of this whole big map of where the Gottmans are going. They call it the sound relationship house, and you can Google this and you can find the image that they’ve come up with. It’s basically the house, the kind that you would draw when you were in kindergarten. Square on the bottom, triangle on the top. That’s basically what it looks like. It’s not that complicated.

The word they use is “sound,” which means stable or meaningful in this context. It’s going to be a good, stable house that you can live in and that you can love in.

So, we’re going to talk about some of the elements of the Gottman sound relationship house today.

They start out talking about the two walls, the bearing walls and what those bearing walls are. They have identified that the two bearing walls are trust and commitment, and obviously these both work in tandem with each other. Now, you may have started out your relationship or if you’re newly starting out your relationship, where, if you were asked the question, “Do you trust you partner?”

Most couples who are getting married or are recently married would answer that and say: “Of course I trust my partner because why else would I have gotten married if I didn’t trust this person?”

But it’s worth asking what the basis is for that trust. Now I sometimes talk about how oftentimes when we’re new in relationships when it’s an immature relationship, trust is pretty superficial as well, and some of it has to do with the way they make me feel good about me. I think a lot of the answers that new couples give to each other about this, and this doesn’t have to do with age, whatever age you are, if you’re starting a relationship, it’s going to be an immature relationship.

And usually, that trust at the beginning of the relationship is not because they haven’t let you down. It’s not about that yet in a significant way. It’s not because that trust has been tested.–It’s, “I trust this person because I like being around them.”

Why do I like being around them? A lot of times it has to come back to they make me feel good. But we have to know at the beginning of any relationship that trust is going to be tested. That trust is going to be pushed upon, and sometimes pushed upon really hard, and so we have to look at it and ask: How do we build trust when we face problems? 

Now, one of the truths and for any couple who has actually had the experience (even if it wasn’t pleasant at first) of figuring out that this relationship needs some help. And they enter therapy, at the end of therapy, hopefully, if the therapist has helped them do a good job as a couple, they are leaving with a much more solid relationship than came before because they were repairing breaches or betrayals of that trust.

And so again, when we’re building that house, we think we’re building it well, but we don’t know because the house hasn’t been seasoned yet. It hasn’t had to go through weather changes, it hasn’t had to last over extended periods of time. So, the reality is–in relationships, trust is built slowly over time, and usually with some betrayals or breaches in that process.

Now Dr. Gottman has said that the basis of trust is really this idea of attunement. So, if you consider the following acronym ATTUNE. It starts with A; he says we’re looking at awareness. Are you aware in your relationship, and do you really see things and see your partner and see yourself?

The next letter is T, and that is about turning toward. We talked a lot about that in the past episode in this series, and so I’m not going to go too much into that, but turning toward is important.

Then the next T in ATTUNE is tolerance. Can I tolerate and be uncomfortable and tolerate my partner and myself being imperfect?

The U is for understanding.

And then the N is non-defensive responding.

And the last one–E for empathy.

LEARN MORE about Couples Counseling with Healing Paths

So, the work of building trust occurs as we move through life together, whatever trust we had when we first got into this relationship, it will change as we move through life together. That’s not to say that the trust you might have at the beginning of the relationship isn’t real, but it’s not as strong as it can be, and it really hasn’t been tested at the beginning of relationships.

Now the second idea, let’s talk about moving into some commitment and the way that works. So building and maintaining trust is being aware not only of your partner’s needs, but also of your own and being realistic about that, knowing when you can show up and knowing when you can’t and then setting appropriate boundaries and communicating that in the relationship. So some of that when we talked about tolerance in the ATTUNE acronym, we decide to let go of what doesn’t matter. We decide what am I going to speak up about, what do I let go? All of that comes as we’re in the relationship and sometimes it comes when we make mistakes and we say, oh that goes in my I’m not really going to make a big deal about that, so when we have to talk about trust, we also have to talk about commitment because we have to recognize there’s two people in the relationship and just because it’s what I want and this other person can’t just live their life or plan their life in a way that allows for all my wants, needs, and desires, so there are times I’m going to be disappointed. There’s times my partner has to say no, I’m not able to do that, and that is really about the commitment part, and I find that sometimes because you can sense, and this is somebody that we got into a relationship with so we love this person, we can sense when we are disappointing them, we can sense when we are giving them an answer and we know it’s not what they want to hear, but that’s the commitment part. I cannot give you a yes when inside of myself I know it’s a no. I know what my day looks like. I know there’s no way I’m going to be able to pick up that stuff at the grocery store that you’re asking me to do, and so rather than pretend that I forgot, I just say to you up front I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that today. Remember I’ve got this meeting and then I’ve got this, and I’m probably staying late, so I’m not going to be able to do that. I’m happy to do it tomorrow if you want to whatever. But we’ve got to be able to recognize that I can’t just commit to something knowing that I’m not able to make that commitment for whatever reason.

We also can’t under-commit. So sometimes we because we don’t want to let the other person down, we don’t stretch ourselves. We don’t commit to things. Now sometimes those people often don’t even get into the committed relationship because they have a hard time committing to that, or they do. Maybe they get married, but pretty quickly, they’ve kind of emotionally left the relationship and uncommitted themselves. Now the truth is relationships are hard work, and sometimes we do run out of energy, we run out of time, we run out of patience, we over-commit, we under-commit. When we fail to stay attune to each other as we commit, making promises, setting boundaries, we pave the way to places that we don’t want to go, so this will lead us to a breakdown of communication, a breakdown of connection, and possibly even a breakup of the relationship. So that trust and that commitment is important in building this sound relationship house, and I find oftentimes if people can’t trust their partner and if they’re not committing themselves to show up as they are, oftentimes they’ll start to show up somewhere else, or they’ll start to commit to something else, whether that’s a work problem, like overworking or another relationship or something like that, that’s where we start to find some of the problems and things that went awry in the relationship.

In the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman’s research proves that 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable, so that’s really going to take some effort on our part to be committed and we’re going to talk about how do we do this in a way that keeps our commitment to the relationship and to ourselves? We’re not putting our partner above ourselves and putting their needs above our needs. We’ve got to make room for both, and in ways that build trust. How do we navigate these things? And especially with 69% of problems that are unsolvable, that’s a high amount of problems that we’re not actually going to solve, so when we go back to the sound relationship house, at the very bottom, so kind of the foundation, they have build love maps. Now back in the day when I first heard the Gottmans speak, they had paper. This was probably in the late 90s, early 2000s, now thank goodness, they have it all, it’s an app, you can get it whatever phone device you have, you can get it in the app store if you type in Gottman, and I think they’re… I can’t remember what they are. I looked a couple of years ago what they are, and you buy this app and it’s great if you’re going out on a date, if you’re spending some time with your spouse, these are some great questions to start to get to know each other and build those relationship maps. Now when we’re talking about building relationship maps, we’re really talking about building this friendship and knowing each other and keeping that information updated, so we know that knowing little things about your partner’s life creates a strong foundation for friendship and intimacy or closeness. So in the Gottmans’ research, they found that emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s worlds, and so they call this a richly detailed love map. It’s their term for that part of our brain where we store all the important and even not-so-important information about our partner’s life. So another way of saying that is these couples have made plenty of cognitive room in their minds for their relationship, and they remember the major events in each other’s histories, they keep updating their information as their facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. They know each other’s goals in life, what they’re working towards, they know what they’re worried about, they know what each other’s hopes and dreams are, and without such a map, we can’t really know our partner very well, and if we can’t know our partner very well, we can’t really know where the two of us are going or how to get there, and that’s going to start getting in the way of love and all of the other things that build relationships and make them what they can be. So couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s worlds are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict. Partners who are already in the habit of keeping up to date and are aware of what each other are feeling and thinking aren’t as thrown off course by the changes and stress in each other’s lives, and they are less likely to have this gap between each other get too large that the relationship starts to suffer because of it.

So if you’re thinking about… like think back to the first of your relationship, and hopefully you spent so much time getting to know this person. I know when I was first getting to know my husband, he would tell me… because we would talk and we would talk and we spent hours sharing and talking and all sorts of stuff, and I remember my husband said once that his dad was like, “I’ve never known you to talk so much in your life. What is this about?” And so it is one of those things where we really start to open up and connect, and we just are really sharing each other’s worlds with each other, and that’s part of what is binding us together in this bond that moves us into a committed relationship. So if we move or we move in from that map… if our map internally starts to change and I’m not sharing that with my partner, I don’t let them know, like hey, my map is adjusting, then it’s easy for us to lose our way with each other and when life events happen or stressors come over time, then that can really be detrimental to the relationship because we haven’t kept those maps synched. So some of the ways to build love maps, answering questions about each other. Find out how much we really know about our partner’s world, and kind of it helps to deepen the relationship and it’s kind of a fun way to kind of talk and get to know each other, so if you’re going out to dinner or just spending some time together, I would suggest downloading these maps. Maybe you’re just really good at thinking about questions in your head, so some of the love map exercise questions are like “Name my two closest friends.” Now sometimes that changes. Who the two closest friends were when you started dating may be different currently. Again, that’s an example of keeping the love map updated and current. But then there’s also questions like, “What was I wearing when we first met?” Hopefully that one’s not really going to change. “Name one of my hobbies.” “What stresses am I facing right now?” “What is my fondest unrealized dream?” “What is my favorite way to spend an evening?” “What is my favorite way to be soothed?” “What are some important events coming up in my life and how do I feel about them?” Here’s a good one too: “Name one of my major rivals or enemies.” “What was my most embarrassing moment?” “What’s my favorite restaurant?” Asking these questions helps us develop this greater personal insight and a more detailed map of each other’s lives and worlds. When we regularly set aside time in our busy lives for that time in our relationship to update each other on what’s happening and how I’m feeling about what’s happening in my life, the stronger connection that we’re going to have the more profound and rewarding our relationship is going to be. So that’s talking about building the love map.

Now the second part on the relationship or the second column up on the sound relationship house is sharing fondness and admiration. Now again, these activities where we’re updating each other on our love map and sharing our internal landscape, those are going to naturally lead to if you give yourself the opportunity, those will naturally lead to being able to share some fondness and admiration, so if my partner is sharing with me one of their greatest memories when we were dating, it’s easy for me to get on board and be like oh my gosh, I love that too. That was so fun. And just be able to talk about like here’s the thing that I love the most about you or here’s the thing that I remembered most about you, it was the way you looked at me or it’s the way that you smiled when this happened, so that’s this ability to share kind of that fondness and admiration that is saying to our partner, I still see you, and I really still like you, and I’m fond of you, and I admire you.

Then the third layer up in the sound relationship house we talked about in our last episode, turning towards instead of turning away or turning against. So if you haven’t listened to that episode, that’s kind of where all of that information is. I also in the last episode talked about the positive perspective vs. having a negative perspective, so that’s the fourth layer in the house of building this sound house, and I’ve got to have… I also talked about that in the last episode, this I called it the having a positive sentiment override vs. a negative sentiment override. That’s going to be important because again that says these are the lenses in which I look through to see my relationship and to see my partner, and if that’s negative, that’s going to be a problem. If it’s positive, that’s going to build stability and a connection in the relationship.

Now the fifth one up is to manage conflict. Now again, going back to the Gottmans’ research about 69% of couples’ problems are unsolvable, so they may be things like personality traits. Maybe one’s an introvert and one’s more of an extrovert. Maybe they’re just some things that kind of rub you the wrong way, they’re kind of annoying and maybe they weren’t when you were first getting to know each other, but the longer we’re in this relationship together, that’s not my favorite part of you, or it could be just long-standing issues around how we spend or save money and how we view that. You know in my relationship, I’m probably more of the spender and my husband is more of the saver, but that’s something we are continually talking about. It’s not that I don’t want to save. I don’t know that I have an unhealthy spending pattern, although my husband says that my Amazon delivery person may say differently, but we’re constantly talking about and finding the balance in which both of us can be comfortable with how the money story looks. Now the Gottmans’ research finding emphasizes the idea that couples have to learn to manage conflict, rather than avoiding or attempting to eliminate it. If 69% is unsolvable, then how are we going to avoid it? That’s going to cause problems in the relationship and it really isn’t possible to eliminate it completely. Now that does say there’s like 31% of problems that we can maybe eliminate or it’s the way we’re communicating and maybe we get better at doing it in a way after we’ve kind of talked through that, but there’s a whole lot that we’re going to have to learn to manage because that’s the only thing we can do. So trying to solve unsolvable problems is counterproductive, and nobody, no couple, I don’t care how happy they are, is ever going to completely eliminate problems, so it comes back to how we manage them, and how we manage them largely is determined by how we discuss them and whether we’re discussing these issues constructively, providing a positive opportunity for understanding and growth and a way to kind of… if we can increase understanding, then we’re increasing our ability to tolerate maybe the disconnect or the different perspectives of how to do that. So psychologist Dan Wile once said that when choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems, which is true, and we have to look at that if no relationship is not going to have problems, when I chose this person I’m choosing what our unresolvable issues will look like, and if I choose somebody else, they’re still going to be there, they may look differently.

So I often work with couples and help them to increase curiosity and to get really good at asking questions and then just listening, and if you get a response, ask another question. Now this takes some time. It’s not going to be efficient in terms of quick. It’s not going to be really fast; however, usually when problems start to get gridlocked, we can spend days or I work with couples where they can spend weeks in gridlock, and so when we think about yes, sitting down, getting curious, asking questions, seeking understanding, it does take time, but we can spend a lot of time in conflict, too, and for me, I would rather spend it in terms of seeking and working towards understanding than just in terms of keeping my walls up and being stuck in gridlock. So questions encourage participation. They encourage reflection and conversation, and if we’re good at asking questions… Now we can ask a question like this question is never going to be helpful, like “What were you thinking?” That’s not going to encourage participation. It’s not going to get that person to reflect into themselves. That’s going to make them defensive, and they’re probably going to shoot back in a defensive way that shuts down conversation, so what the Gottmans have found is the happiest couples have a foundation of friendship. Again, going back to that love map and that friendship begins by asking deep questions, and it’s this expression of care and interest, so if we have that, if we have that love map built and we keep it updated and current, and if it’s easy for us in our relationship to share fondness and share how we admire this partner of ours, if we’re more likely to turn towards each other, and overall I have a positive perspective, then when it comes to managing conflict, I’m going to do much better and I have these things underneath to trust, and I know this person is committed and so when they’re asking me questions, I don’t see them as an enemy, and I don’t respond in that way, so I will reflect on myself and I’ll be thoughtful in my response, and I will hear what they’re saying, and I’ll be asking myself those questions to find what that answer is for me, and that friendship starts to carry us through how we manage conflict.

Now researchers at the Sloan Center at UCLA studied 30 heterosexual couples with young children in dual-income households, so both parents were working. They found the couples only spent about 35 minutes a week together in conversation, and most of that conversation was discussing items on a to-do list, so who’s going to do what when. Now we know that type of conversation is the least productive at building this relationship and supporting a friendship, and sometimes that is what our life looks like, so again, when I’m working with couples and they’re in that phase of life with young kids, I remember, and I’m like, yeah, that is a hard time. My husband and I would always say the kids were kind of this wild card, and maybe we had the best of plans, and then three of our kids end up with the flu, and we’re like we drew the wild card, and all of a sudden that’s not going to go the way that we had planned or maybe we had planned to go out and all of a sudden one of our kids is sick, so being able to talk about and share like I’m disappointed, I was so looking forward to spending that time with you and really having time away from the kids to connect and to see you and hear you beyond just kind of the craziness of the week. I think that also got us through some long years with young kids, just knowing that we did look forward to that time and we wanted that time, and we took it when we were able, and most of the time we were able, but like I said, those kids are kind of wild cards, and when you draw the wild card, everything that had planned goes away. So if you’re in that place, if you’re in that hard phase of life where the days are long and the years seem long and the kids are young, I think again how can you even in those moments, how can you connect with this friend that you’re living with and start to joke with them in ways or increase like physical touch or just different things like that? Maybe we are sharing fondness and admiration. Thank you so much for doing that with the kids. I just really needed a break, and I know that you could tell that and you just kind of swooped in, took your turn with the kids, and I just so appreciated it. That was so helpful for me. So again, that we are kind of turning towards each other, we are sharing that fondness and admiration. During those years it may be difficult to do that, but are we building that so that when the kids start to grow up and the kids don’t need us as much that we’re not looking at this person like uh who are you and how do we get back to where we were before we had kids?

And then the last two columns in the Gottmans’ sound house talk about making life dreams come true. So do you know what your partner’s life dreams are, and do you know what yours are? When I talk to a lot of couples, they’re kind of just caught in living life, and so when we start to talk about like what are your dreams, they gave up on that a long time ago. Now maybe we have dreams that we probably won’t realize until our older years, but it also still may be fun to talk about those dreams, though, even if they’re not something that you feel like you can realize even in the net 10 years, but we also can have just more like two-year dreams or five-year dreams or this next year, this is what I’m hoping to do, and are we setting ourselves up in our relationship to share those dreams and to know those dreams ourselves? And then the last one is we’re creating shared meaning. Also when I work with couples, one of the things that is common is the in-laws, whoever’s family that is, sometimes it’s both, sometimes it’s just one, but these families have created their rituals and they have their ways of connecting, and when the kids start growing up and having their own families, grandma and grandpa or the mom and dad of that family are starting to be like, wait a minute, what about our rituals or connection and what about what we do to celebrate? And I usually will talk with couples about if the relationship isn’t open to changing, then we have a closed system, and closed systems are not very functional. So is it hard for parents as kids start to grow up and have a partner who also has a family and now they’re managing those two families? Sure it is. I don’t have any of my kids married currently, but I have two kids who are in committed relationships, and we’ve had to make space in our family rituals for the fact that they have another family that they’re also connecting with and that they have time that they want without doing anything with either family, and we have to be able to be open and adjust and not see that as a threat to the family system.

So I find oftentimes that the family of origins can get in the way of how this new family that’s growing is able to create their own shared meaning, and yet it’s important that they do create their own shared meaning, and the families of origin are going to have to adjust, or they may be upset, but we can’t… we have to kind of figure out. Sometimes I will tell couples you have to figure out which family is the priority because you’re in both. Now my bias as a therapist is if you’re married and you have children, that has to be your priority. Mom and dad can’t any longer be the priority, and so sometimes that can take a long time to work through in therapy, and that can get pretty complicated and pretty scary for people to start to kind of ruffle the feathers of mom and dad, and sometimes it doesn’t have to look that big, like what are you doing to create shared meaning just within your little family? What are your rituals of connecting just for your family? Now this looks like how do we do bedtime with our kids? And how do we as a couple do bedtime? That’s not something that mom and dad are going to be a part of, hopefully they’re not in our life like every day that much, and so what are our values? How do we connect? How do we start the day? What does our morning look like? What does dinnertime look like? All of these kinds of things are going to be important, and we can even start those open conversations and building love maps with our kids in that relationship that also keeps us in our coupleship doing those things because we’re also doing that with our kids.

So again, when in doubt, I would say get back to being curious, and that’s really going to bring the connection and the strength to the relationship if we can start to get curious, seek understanding about what’s going on for this person. Curiosity typically takes us out of kind of this enemy mode and takes us more into like I just want to know you. For most people, that’s not a threat. Now if there’s a secret and there’s a betrayal that way, then that’s going to feel like a threat because I’m trying to limit how much I’m connecting with you; however, the more one person kind of seeks that connection and that understanding, what I find is secrets never want to be kept, and they have a way of making it out into the open, and so that can be very destabilizing for the relationship, and maybe you’re in a relationship where it’s kind of post this bomb going off in the relationship. We can still start building back. You’re not going to have the relationship that you had, but we can start building back the relationship that you need if you’re deciding to stay. Maybe you’re in a relationship and you’re feeling like, wait we didn’t do any of this and this explains some of the reasons we’re struggling, so ten years into the relationship, how do we start to do that? Well I would encourage you to have your partner, if they’re not listening to this series on communication, get them listening to this. Even get them listening to this conversation and saying hey, there’s something I’d like to start in our family and more importantly in our relationship because I feel like I’ve lost you or I feel like we’re not as connected as we used to be, and would you be willing to do this with me? Now I find that the best questions when we’re getting curious, we tend to go back to the who, what, when, where, and again, who, what, when, where can be used in a way that makes the other person feel like they’re being interrogated, and if you don’t have that friendship established, or if you’re in negative sentiment override, then it will feel like I’m being interrogated, so you may have to say like, “Hey, can I just ask you some questions? I really don’t want to use this against you. I’m just really curious about this and I’m just really wanting to get to know more about how you feel about this.” So the tone, how we approach it, we may have to do some kind of repair work up front when we’re coming into the relationship, like, “Hey, I know I haven’t always done this the best in the past. I’m trying to do it new. I really do want to understand. I don’t want to get defensive to whatever your answer is. Can I try to do this differently?” So I think we have a lot of opportunities to turn things around in our relationship and to deepen the connection and the trust and the commitment that we have in our relationship.

In our next episode, I’m going to talk more about how do we come back after conflict and how do we have conversations that really deepen the vulnerability, that deepen the connection and the trust that we have in a relationship.