February is the traditional month to celebrate lovers and couples with hearts, flowers, and candy. But for those experiencing relationship conflict or feeling as if the love has gone out of their relationship, Valentine’s Day can be a painful reminder of what they used to share.

Many couples choose to get help from a therapist to save their relationship – but beware – couples therapy can make issues worse if not done by a therapist with specific training and experience in this type of work. Things to watch out for are the following:

Therapists should never take sides and yet this is often what each person in the relationship wants when they enter couples therapy.  Many therapists inexperienced in this work fall into this trap.

Another common yet unproductive pattern in couples therapy is when the therapist focuses on the “issue du jour,” or the annoyance or irritation that happens to be on someone’s mind when you walk into the therapist’s office. You end up always talking about the last fight you had.

Couples therapy should not be focused on an in-depth analysis of each individual’s issues.  If needed, this should be done with a different therapist in an individual session. The couples therapy should be directive, task oriented and include homework – couples should leave each session with specific tasks and homework assignments.

As with any type of psychotherapy, potential clients should seek a therapist who has specific training in prescribed and well researched methods that have been shown to provide the best outcomes. To date, the most widely researched couples therapy with the best outcomes is the Gottman method. This approach requires a therapist to complete 4 levels of training to become certified. What makes it so unique in the therapeutic landscape is that it is entirely based on research findings from couples researcher John Gottman’s own studies of married couples.

Psychologist and researcher, John Gottman has spent more than 40 years researching couples. One of the innovations of Gottman’s approach to research was that he observed how couples interacted in a live-in environment. Using multiple cameras installed in homes, he could see how couples interacted naturally. By studying hundreds of couples this way, he catalogued the behaviors in people who stay married, as well as identified behaviors in those who ended up divorced. Based on his research, Gottman constructed a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in, which today has become known as “The Sound Relationship House.” Couples learn and practice these behaviors at home weekly while in Gottman therapy.

Gottman also identified the “four horsemen” which are the lethal issues that break up marriages.  Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (Gottman et al 27). In therapy, couples learn ways to avoid these lethal behaviors.

The Gottman Method is a highly structured and goal-oriented form of couples therapy designed to help couples maintain healthy, lasting relationships. Therapy aims to increase respect, affection, and closeness, break through and resolve conflict, generate greater understandings, and to keep conflict discussions calm. It is designed to support couples across all economic, racial, sexual orientation, and cultural sectors.

If your marriage or relationship needs help you can learn more about this type of therapy at  https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGottmanInstitute.

Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and a partner in Ascendant Behavioral Clinics in Lehi. She can be reached at smitchell@ascendantclinics.com or (801) 872-5516.

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