The Sound Relationship House… One Story at a Time
What is the Gottman Sound Relationship House? It seems that you can’t find a Gottman trained blogger or Gottman “informed” therapist website, that doesn’t rhapsodize about it. They all seem to approach it similarly.
I thought that in this post, I might meander a path to the side door instead of taking the usual six-lane superhighway to the front door of the Sound Relationship House.
Don’t get me wrong. I share their enthusiasm. One of the brilliant aspects of Gottman Method Couples Therapy is the way all of the clinical findings are condensed into the original meme that is the Sound Relationship House.
Each level of the house addresses a fundamental principle of marital intimacy. The first three levels of the house describe the bedrock of couple intimacy…which is the quality and depth of the marriage friendship.
Friendship is the Bedrock
Build Love Maps. The first level of the house asks the question…just how well do you know your partner? “Do you ask open-ended questions?” is the standard approach.
Most couples therapy blogs emphasize “Build Love Maps” as an instruction to be curious. How much do you know your partner’s world?
However, I like to flip this question on its head. “How well do you want to be known?”
Some partners have had a family-of-origin, which regarded curiosity as a threat or criticism. Developmental Trauma, Intimacy Avoidance, and Conflict Avoidance are issues that often go begging in discussions about love maps. It’s not just about wanting to know your partner…its also about your tolerance to being known by them as well.
There are many partners who have been dealt a bad parental hand. They are uncomfortable being questioned by their partner, even if the questions are benign and “open-ended.”
This discomfort can sometimes be so automatic that curiosity has been beaten down…and dares not raise its head.
Sometimes just discussing an emotional reaction to a question can be more intimate and revealing than the original question could ever hope to be.
But while that is true, it’s also important to remember that escalating contempt is often a late-stage problem with distressed couples. Sharing Fondness and Admiration is more than an antidote to contempt. It is an ongoing stance toward your partner which prevents criticism from escalating into contempt in the first place.
Your Fondness and Admiration stance manifests in your ongoing softened start-ups and repair attempts.
The older Gottman remedy for contempt was building a Culture of Appreciation. Culture informs everything you do, and that is an essential aspect of Sharing Fondness and Admiration.
Turn Towards Instead of Away. Turning Toward versus Turning Away is about the small stuff, the everyday things. How you say goodbye in the morning, or how you stay in touch during the day or greet each other when you return home from work. This is how deposits get made into each of “Emotional Bank Accounts.” Turning toward is an important concept in the Sound Relationship House because it also expresses a stance toward your partner.
But like building love maps, couples can sometimes have a mismatched tolerance for turning toward. Or a meta-emotional mismatch of what turning toward means. It’s helpful to explore in couples therapy what your tolerance for turning toward might be, and how your baseline may differ from your partner.
Unlike most Gottman therapist bloggers, I’m a little uncomfortable with the black and white notion of “turning toward versus turning away.” Turning away implies a stance of rejection or dismissal that might be, for some couples, a bit too simplistic.
For example, recently, I worked with an international couple. He was 100% Japanese, and she was Swedish. One of their “Turning Toward” issues was that he would plop down close to her when she was on the sofa, and she would become irritated. Then his feelings would get hurt, and then they might bicker a bit.
The real issue was most likely a mismatch of proxemics stemming from a cultural difference. I suggested that he ask to sit next to her and that they experiment with trying different peripersonal space variations. I invited them to play with this problem as a cultural difference that might be wired into their nervous systems, and not as an indication that she was rejecting him.
What would it look like if he met her in a way that was more comfortable to her? How could she invite him to do so?
The Positive Perspective. Orthodox Gottman Method therapy, tells us that if the first three levels of the Sound Relationship House are not working, the couple has entered into a state of Negative Sentiment Override (NSO), in which even neutral or positive messages are seen in a negative light.
Gottman emphasizes making bids, accepting influence, and increasing fondness and admiration as ways to encourage a Positive Perspective.
I also think that it’s important for couples therapists to hold a Positive Perspective when their couple isn’t able to do so.
I believe in reframing and challenging negative assumptions. While maintaining a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions is the sober math of NSO, I also talk about the “partner in your head” versus your real partner.
Negative Sentiment Override at its worst can be an all-consuming state. I invite couples to consider how the partner in their head is an exaggeration of the worst traits of their actual partner. If you don’t want to be unfairly assessed by your partner, start by noticing your own negativity and strive to hold it more lightly.
Manage Conflict. This is a central idea in the Sound Relationship House because conflict is baked in the marital cake. Conflict in marriage is as healthy as it is inevitable.
We sometimes spend a lot of time here during our couples therapy intensives. Conflict regulation is a critical skill for many of our couples. In an Intensive Retreat, couples learn to identify the core issues and patterns of repeating negative cycles in their marriage.
Our couples unpack what triggers their escalation, learn about the Four Horsemen (e.g., defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling), and how their family of origin shaped their triggers and enduring vulnerabilities.
However, for many couples, managing conflict is hard work.
It involves learning new skills such as softened start-up, making “I” statements, physiological noticing, and accepting influence.
Although it’s not often mentioned by other Gottman therapist bloggers, I find that The two load-bearing walls of the Sound Relationship House, Trust, and Commitment, are essential clues to the capacity of a couple to do the hard work of conflict management.
Motivation is essential. And motivation is nurtured and fed by commitment and trust.
Make Life Dreams Come True. Emotional connection is maintained during the conflict when the connection is prized over the inevitable interpersonal differences that inform a couple’s set of perpetual problems. In other words… you have to be in it to win it.
Before science-based couples therapy, therapists believed that positive affect would swoosh in once the negative feelings dissipated. We now know that emotional connection must be deliberately chosen and cherished. And having a congruent set of Life-Dreams certainly helps.
Create Shared Meaning. Couples who have Shared Meaning are more resilient. They have a higher, often trans-generational purpose that sustains them. But, at the risk of seeming too picky, I wonder if “create” is the most appropriate word here. This is the realm of the sacred. Perhaps Shared Meaning isn’t created as much as it is re-discovered or re-consecrated…like a Sound Relationship House blessing.