What I Have Learned From the Gottmans: Where to Start?

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Okay, Let’s Start with the Research

John Gottman’s research on the longitudinal course of relationships began in 1972 when he and Bob Levenson  asked the question: What predicts divorce? At the time there were only six studies on divorce and none were at all helpful. John and Bob did not exactly have a vote of confidence from the academic and research community. John, a professor at the University of Washington, and Bob a professor at UC Berkeley, received much skepticism  with responses characterized by the question: “Social scientists can not predict individual behavior very well, how can you predict relationship behavior?” John and Bob’s research outcomes surprised even them; relationship behavior is predictable, they indeed found out what is associated with relationship breakdown and with relationship stability.

The three areas of John and Bob’s research involved: interactions, physiology, and perception. It turns out that each of these areas have significance in understanding and determining relationship trajectory: either towards stability or instability. What they discovered was that relationships have a  balance between negativity and positivity, called”set points”. In dysfunctional relationships these set points are habitually toward negativity with a dynamic of blame and/or withdrawal, referred to as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With over 90% accuracy John and Bob could predict what would happen to the relationship with the knowledge collected in just a few hours. The  consistent escalation in negativity impacts the couple’s ability to repair hurts and conflicts just as the consistent calm characterized in the healthy relationships was an indicator for relationship stability.

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The research was multi-dimensional, involving over 3,000 couples from every major racial and ethic group in the United States, and included a twelve year study of committed gay and lesbian relationships. This is pretty compelling stuff, but what happens next sets this cutting edge research in a unique category of research. It is one thing to  have learned about these relationship patterns and dynamics that provide a way of understanding and predicting relationship trajectory, but it’s quite another thing to make use of it in a very practical and applicable way. It wasn’t until John began collaborating with his psychologist wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, that methods were developed to help couples. The outcome of this innovation of blending science and practice was a relationship model developed by the Gottmans, the “Sound Relationship House (SRH) theory. The SRH model provides a map for working with couples involving three different components of relationship – Friendship, Conflict, and Meaning –  broken down into 7 different levels. The SRH model is a non-linear, interactional model, with separate but related levels that effect each other.

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Now Let’s Talk About What They Did with the Research

Together, Drs. Julie and John Gottman co-founded the Gottman Institute, a vision aimed at helping couples and training therapists in this research-based approach of couple therapy. The Gottmans created “Art and Science of Love:  A Weekend  Workshop for Couples, an intensive experiential workshop where couples are provided tools and given information on what emerged from the research.

Additionally, through Gottman Institute has trained countless therapists over the years and has developed training program options with opportunity to deepen the understanding and application of the SRH model. In the spirit of “pass it on”, the Gottmans have transitioned from providing all the training to training Certified Gottman Therapists to be trainers and to continue what has been this important work.  What a gift it has been to be a part of this work. Untold hours have been spent by the Gottmans and their team under the able direction of Etana Dykan Kunovsky (who has been there from the start), and Alan Kunovsky, developing and continuing to evolve the workshops for couples and the the training workshops for therapists.

I’m not intending to write this article as an advertisementt, but rather as an acknowledgement and public appreciation of a brilliant model of research and practice that has  developed into a process of bringing  important information about relationships to couples and to therapists.

What I believe drives the success of this model is the underlying philosophy John and Julie hold, that the SRH theory and methods of intervention are continuing to evolve and be developed and deepened. Like all healthy relationships, growth is ongoing, we are never really done in the sense of reaching a certain stage of development – “Whew, we have arrived”. Rather the ups and downs, success and failures all lead to a sense of continuing change and growth.

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What This Has Meant To Me

Over 10 years ago I began my own research with couples in recovery from addiction. This work has continued with the support of the Mental Research Institute (MRI), where I am a Research Associate in addition to my private practice. It turns out that we know a lot about how addiction affects couples, but not very much about how to actually help relationships impacted addiction. I too have been met with skepticism over the model I have developed helping couples in recovery, because couple therapy traditionally is discouraged unless they have years of recovery.

Much to my own surprise I have found striking similarities with SRH model and my Couple Recovery Development Approach (CRDA). What I didn’t have, however, were interventions to help couples. This is where Gottman Method therapy enters. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with John Gottman in developing my own adaptation of Gottman therapy for recovering couples. This research/practice model developed by John and Julie Gottman has motivated and inspired me, and provided a road map of sorts on how to develop this model and get the work out to couples and to recovery professionals and therapists. Both Julie and John express their continued support and mentoring in developing a workshop for recovering couples and tools for clinicians in helping recovering couples.

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With Gratitude

Couples in Addiction Recovery Empowerment (CARE), is a concept of  relational approach to recovery, one that supports individual recovery in the context of the couple relationship, essentially creating a “Couple Recovery”. As I have learned from the evolution of John’s research to a model of practice:

  • I am grateful for beginning this phase of work with the support from the Gottman Institute and John & Julie  
  • I aspire to innovate and continue to collaborate in developing couple recovery approaches.
  • I hope to be a part of creating a vision of couple recovery as a widely accepted practice within recovery circles
  • Perhaps others will feel motivation and continue to motivate me in carrying this forward

A Road Map for the Journey: A Gottman Worshop for Couples in Addiction Recovery, is a two-day workshop I developed in collaboration with John and Julie Gottman and sponsored by the Gottman Institute and Edgewood Seattle Addiction Services. The workshop debuts April 5 & 6, 2014 at held at Edgewood Seattle. After a decade, this is quite a dream come true. I am very grateful to be a part of the Gottman Community.

The Couple Recovery Development Approach: It’s Time (Special Thanks to Dr.John Gottman)

Couple Recovery: There is a path to follow

Many people and events over the last eight years have contributed to my interest and commitment to researching and exploring the concept of helping relationships where one or both partners are in recovery from chemical dependency.  My firm belief is that individual and couple recovery approaches are not mutually exclusive. We know from research that long-term successful recovery from alcoholism has a strong correlation with a positive and healthy relationship. That really isn’t surprising if one thinks about it, but what is surprising is why we don’t account for that variable in treatment – sooner than later in the recovery process.

Certainly there are circumstances when the relationship will need to take a back seat with efforts focused on individual recovery, but even then, it can be helpful to give couples strategies to manage these times. In active addiction, the elephant is the unspoken reality of that addiction. When couples are managing recovery, I don’t think we need to create a new elephant by discouraging and avoiding the reality of recovery in their lives.

Mike had been in recovery for almost 15 years and recalls how difficult the first year of recovery was, on him and especially on his relationships with his wife and family. He states that he wished he had been able to talk to his wife  about some of what was happening for him and in the relationship. Instead, the advise they received at Mike’s treatment program was to focus on their individual recoveries only. They followed this advise, remaining silent on the recovery issue and on all the changes they were experiencing – recovery was off-limits. He was to work his program, she was to work on hers. Ellen too regrets that they didn’t have the tools to even acknowledge the huge changes taking place in themselves, their relationship and in their family. They now have those tools and for the first time feel they are a couple in recovery, they feel closer together, and support the idea of  “Couple Recovery” sooner not later in the recovery process.

I am a therapist and researcher. A brief bio: I  have specialized in chemical dependency treatment since 1987 in my private practice; I have completed two addiction certifications, Advanced Drug and Alcohol Training (UC Santa Cruz) and Master Addiction Counselor (National Certification); I have trained with leaders in the field; worked as a clinical director of a drug and alcohol clinic; and did my doctoral dissertation on long-term recovery process in couple relationships as a part of the Family Recovery Project, directed by Co-Founders Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. and Virginia Lewis, Ph.D., at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. The overwhelming consensus in the field has been that doing couples work in early recovery was a bad idea. Over time, in my work with individuals and couples in all stages of addiction and recovery, I came to see that not addressing couples issues was in fact a critical oversight. It isn’t couples work that is the problem, it is how to approach the couples work that becomes the central issue. Assessment is core to determine what kind of approaches are appropriate in any given situation. Relationships don’t go away once a person begins recovery, wouldn’t it be better to account for that reality in recovery?

   Getting on the right track

After I completed my dissertation and completed my doctorate I was invited by Dr. Virginia Lewis to stay at Mental Research Institute as a Research Associate. We co-founded Center for couples in Recovery. The research continued and I learned that the skills used by couples in long-term recovery could in fact be adapted to couples early in the recovery process. My clinical experience in individual couple therapy and multi-couple therapy groups was confirming that Couple Recovery indeed had a place, even in early recovery. As I shared my model at professional conferences at the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the feedback from therapists was consistently positive as we raised the issue: “Why aren’t we helping couples in addiction recovery?”

I found out through my friend and colleague Lynda Voorhees, MFT, Certified Gottman Therapist,  that that the research-based Gottman Method Therapy model and interventions were very congruent and compatible with my developing model of treating couples in recovery. I did not have to rediscover the wheel!  Fast forward – I completed the Gottman training, became Certified in the Gottman Model and went on to complete training as a Gottman Method Consultant and Trainer and began presenting my research at Gottman Conferences.  John Gottman expressed his enthusiasm for this model and research and offered to collaborate on this relational approach to addiction treatment I had named “Couple Recovery Development Approach” (CRDA). John graciously invited me to co-author a chapter he was invited to write for Routledge Press, and he asked me to include in this chapter my own research on recovering couples (Case Studies in Couples Therapy: Theory-Based Approaches, 2011) e. Additionally, John asked me to join the Relationship Research Institute as a Research Scientist and suggested we apply for funding to set up set up a randomized clinical trial in treatment programs comparing outcome results from standard treatment with outcomes from the CRDA program.  John’s encouragement, support, and mentoring has been an invaluable experience for me personally and professionally and I am deeply appreciative to him for his contributions to the field of relationship therapy and for his nudging me along on my own journey.

Here’s where things are at:

Phase 1: In collaboration with John Gottman, I further developed CRDA through John’s insights and suggestions for additional interventions and adaptations inspired by Gottman Method Therapy research. John’s suggested a workshop format followed by multi-couples groups as a follow-up. I thought that was brilliant! Additionally, feedback from the monthly meetings of the Recovery Forum at Mental Research Institute has been a steady stream of support, feedback and encouragement. The Recovery Forum consists of therapists interested in addiction treatment, research, education, and writing – much like the old days at MRI  – a think tank.

Phase 2: In May, 2011 I offered a CRDA workshop at Santa Clara University Professional Development Department (thank you Dr. Jerry Shapiro) training therapists, counselors and students through explaining the model and having participants role play the couple exercises. I offered the workshop again in July at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, this time co-presenting with John Gottman who brought his latest work on trust and betrayal – a very relevant addition to the workshop – and an additional technique for relationship repair. These workshops functioned like focus groups of therapists sharing their responses and ideas about the interventions and how to best help couples in early recovery

Phase 3:  In September I am giving the workshop to couples at three drug and alcohol treatment programs: Thank you to Sequoia Center in Redwood City, CA; Alternative Options in Cerritos, CA (Los Angeles area); and Bayside Marin Treatment. Sponsored by a grant for Center for Couples in Recovery at MRI, couples will take this two-day workshop to learn and develop skills in conflict management, problem solving, managing emotions, ways to support individual recovery programs, repairing the damage from the past, and how to develop a “Couple Recovery”. At the end of the workshop, we will once again ask for feedback in this prototype workshop.

Phase 4: We will be seeking funding from NIAAA for a two-year randomized clinical study looking at the effectiveness of standard treatment in outpatient programs verses couples given CRDA interventions on  measures comparing relapse rates, relationship satisfaction, quality of life, and taking a closer look at the relationship between relapse rates and relationship satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The couples in the CRDA group will be given a two-day workshop with six follow-up multi couple group sessions.

Phase 5:  Don’t know what that is yet, but that’s ok – (One phase at a time)

Many people have supported this work, too many names to mention here, and I am grateful for your support, ideas and encouragement. It will take a community to make “Couple Recovery” a standard part of addiction treatment and recovery approaches. CRDA is simply one approach, not the only approach – Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA) has been a leader in advocating a couple approach to recovery. Now we have research to help us with a road map to find our way through the maze of couple recovery issues and challenges.

I will keep you posted on how things go over the next month. I’m always interested in thoughts and ideas about couple recovery so I welcome your responses.