Couples counseling today is so much more effective than in decades past. There is almost too much information out there to guide therapists. It can be overwhelming.
I have seen many discussions about two of the main therapeutic models for couple therapy: Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and John and Julie Gottman’s Gottman Method. The discussion can be, like so many discussions, very polarized at times. But there is such a richness and joy to learning from both (not to exclude all of the other contributors to the field right now) that the idea of folding together some of what these models offer seems inevitable.
When, and How, Gottman and EFT Are Compatible
Sometimes I think of Sue Johnson and John Gottman as the “mother and father” of current couples therapy, with EFT providing the emotional attunement and secure attachment, and Gottman providing structure, science, and the nuts and bolts of the “sound relationship house.” The dance metaphor so often used to describe couple interactions, with both Gottman and Johnson as teachers, would involve Gottman leading the steps while EFT/Johnson tracks and changes the music that motivates the moves.
As a primarily EFT therapist, I chose the method that resonated most with me. I began learning how to track couples’ communication cycles in graduate school, where I started to see the magic of understanding the “music” behind the “dance” of couple interaction. I began to get better at attuning to my clients’ emotions and helping them (and their partners) to tune in as well, so they could finally begin to have a felt sense of what goes wrong, and what can go right. I knew this was the model I wanted to learn to master. However, as anyone deeply interested in couples work might do, I learned about Gottman Method as well.
When I learned to cook, my mother taught me to follow the recipes carefully at first. Only once you’ve done that, I learned, can you improvise and change things. The reasoning for this linear process is clear: If you don’t know how to do it right, you probably aren’t qualified to improvise yet. The same is true for therapy. Having a firm grasp of a model is essential in grounding your work and ensuring you don’t get lost in session and, thereby, confuse yourself and your clients.
How to Integrate EFT Principles as a Gottman Therapist
While I did not begin from a Gottman Method perspective, in studying and training in it over the years, I can see how understanding EFT principles can help therapists—whether EFT or Gottman trained—unlock some crucial elements in transformation. Why couples can learn the new steps in an interaction but fall back to old patterns results from the emotion underlying the problematic behaviors. In other words, the “music” of the dance encourages falling back into old ways. Accessing deeper emotions, tracing patterns, as we do in EFT, brings new music to the dance, and reinforces the desired changes.
I know that for Gottman trained therapists, EFT’s model of working directly with painful emotions to help bring new insights, understandings, and interactions can bring added depth and richness to the work. For example, while clients may understand why a “gentle start up” is preferable to criticism, often they still criticize. Through EFT, we learn to both validate the emotions motivating the criticism, and to use the emotions to “excavate” the more vulnerable feelings hiding underneath.
An understanding of EFT can offer a Gottman Method therapist, among many things, a felt sense of why couples engage in these negative cycles in real time, and a way to normalize the behavior for clients who want to behave differently, but time and again find themselves feeling stuck in destructive patterns. A client who knows he is stonewalling, may open up once he and his partner come to understand the very real purpose the stonewall serves. At the same time, EFT helps therapist and clients pivot into new behaviors by tapping into the power of attachment longings.
How to Integrate Gottman Techniques, as an EFT Therapist
Meanwhile, training in the Gottman Method has been continually eye opening and helpful in adding richness to my EFT work. For example, I ask couples to complete the Gottman online assessment at the beginning of therapy. This is invaluable. The couples I work with tell me the assessment itself began helping them take a deeper look at themselves and their relationships and brought them into session much more prepared. It also prepares me by providing an amazing depth and breadth to the couple relationship well before the in-person process begins. One example of the usefulness of the online assessment is that I have a much better idea of any suicidal ideation from the very beginning of our clinical engagement. The same is true for common couple risk factors, including domestic violence, sexual concerns, substance abuse, among many others.
Furthermore, incorporating Gottman tools into EFT becomes simple with available Gottman materials. Showing my clients the Sound Relationship House and walking them through the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, helps them to begin to take a close look at their own contributions to negative communication and prepares them for the self-examination that will be taking place in session.
How and When to Integrate EFT and Gottman Method
Of course, how the therapist decides to integrate Gottman materials will depend not only on the therapist, but on the client couple’s needs. For me, Gottman’s research has been valuable in normalizing couples’ problems and providing reassuring, tangible road maps that create hope and guidance.
I have found Gottman’s approach particularly helpful with partners who have difficulty accessing or naming their emotions. To help engage them in the process, it can be reassuring to have tangible, concrete directions that specifically back up what I am saying. For example, I may walk them through the Aftermath of a Fight booklet, which provides a list of emotions to choose from, validates the reality and importance of subjective experience, and reinforces the value of validating each partner’s emotions. While I focus on the cycle and keep EFT top of mind, clients gain confidence in the process and begin to accept the emotional language more readily, when provided with a resource.
Conclusion: Simple Strategies for Incorporating Both Models
A comprehensive list of the many ways these methods can be integrated would take a book (or several books). My main purpose, in this article, is to note that there are many small ways that can make a difference--that for therapists who are curious, there need not be a major change into another method. It could be as simple as suggesting clients try the Gottman Card Deck phone app to enrich conversation or sexual connection. Or for Gottman Method therapists to validate the valuable attachment protest emotions behind destructive behavior, even while helping clients replace it with constructive alternatives.
What to Consider, Before Integrating Gottman and EFT
There are some important differences between these models, of course. That’s why getting firmly grounded in one before trying to integrate them together makes sense. For example, in Gottman Method, there is specific attention paid to emotional flooding. The therapist teaches self-soothing techniques in session, so that couples don’t try to learn new skills while feeling overwhelmed by emotions, such as fear and anger. In EFT, the technique involves working directly with emotions, in the moment. Clearly the therapist must know which approach they choose ahead of time, because they are so opposite in this regard.
Key differences aside, it is clear that these models offer a wealth of crucial guidance and information to help therapists help their couples. Each therapist may find their own way to incorporate different aspects of each model. In my experience, they each offer vital and unique value to the couple counseling process.
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Margie Wheelhouse is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Springfield, Illinois. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. Contact her at www.margiehtherapy.com
Let us know, in the comments below:
Do you integrate EFT and Gottman? If so, how?
What one detail, from this article, was helpful?