My apologies to Julius Caesar aside, the three major couples therapy models are Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), developed by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg, Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) developed by Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen Kelly Le Hunt, and Gottman Method Couples Therapy (GMCT) developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
I know there are many other couples therapy models out there. Some, such as Collaborative Couples Therapy by Dan Wile, or Relational Life Therapy by Terry Real have undeservedly received only sporadic mass attention. The ICBT Model of Couples Therapy is highly effective and completely science-based, but because there is but a mere handful of trained civilian practitioners its ability to gain traction with the general public is impeded.
But our potential clients may ask So what? None of them have generated the degree of clinical enthusiasm as the above three approaches. And any potential client would get lost in the forest of non-evidence-based speculation and pop psychology.
While there are thousands of certified Imago and EFT therapists, (currently, there are over 1100 Imago therapists in over 37 countries), there are fewer than 300 actively practicing Certified Gottman Therapists worldwide. Perhaps scarcity adds to the mystique, because Gottman has long been regarded as the gold standard of all evidence-based couples therapy models.
Several of our Couples Therapy Inc. team members have been trained in all three of these couples therapy models. We are sometimes asked by potential clients whose approach we would recommend. We tell them that each of these models has particular strengths and deficits, depending on the couple.
The origin story of Imago Therapy recounts the narrative that Harville and his second wife Helen were engaged in conflictual conversation. Helen suggested to Harville that they take turns speaking and listening. For some reason, Harville and Helen focused on repeating each other verbatim. Then the magic happened. And one of the great couples therapy models was born.
Recent studies in neuroscience confirmed that holding a close gaze, and mirroring behaviors (such as quoting your partner word for word) activate mirror neurons in the brain. These mirror neurons are widely considered to be the bedrock of the human/mammalian brain circuitry for empathy. Other findings indicate that experienced holders of “Generative Conversations” such as the Imago protocol enter a brainwave pattern that is very similar to meditation.
Imago practitioners claim that couples therapy clients may experience this altered brainwave pattern during their first session. The Imago couples therapy dialogues can instill a sense of tranquility and presence. Many clients find this experience of mirror neurons an intriguing offset to the anxiety that their couples therapy experience would be arduous and escalated.
Imago in 2011, seeking respect as an evidence-based couples therapy model, held a research-saturated summit with the Gottmans. While there are encouraging pieces of research on Imago, the central premise, active listening, did not impress Gottman. From an evidence-based perspective, there was little to the Imago Mojo bid to be deemed an evidence-based couples therapy model. One intriguing intervention does not a model make.
Some critics have remarked on the deficits of using Imago with insecurely attached and Dismissive-Avoidant clients. These clients struggle with the slow pace required for verbatim exchanges. Imago therapists also report limitations with another 15% to 20% of clients who neither appreciate or look forward to practicing the sometimes ponderously slow Imago dialogue.
These are often very intelligent, or neuro-atypical clients (such as Asperger’s syndrome) who fail to comprehend why they need to repeat their partner’s words verbatim. Resistance to the therapist might become problematic with these couples as well.
Couples therapy models are like tool boxes. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of any given model, as well as any given couple, is a hallmark of advanced skill and training.
Avoidant husbands may seek cover in Imago. The lower emotional intensity and slow paces reduce their inclination to flood or stonewall. Imago therapists also report that some couples bliss -out on mirror neurons during an Imago dialogue in couples therapy, only to go home and fall into the familiar homeostatic kitchen sink.
Then there are the conflict-avoidant clients who so appreciate the de-escalation of the Imago dialogue…but are reluctant to use it as a robust ongoing intervention, and so remain ever conflict avoidant.
In other words, a couples therapy model has to work well across different sorts of couples. Imago struggles in this area.
Forty years of research by John Gottman and his wife Julie has produced a legacy which is Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Gottman Method built on Jacobsen’s evidence-based Integrative Couples Therapy Model with innovations in observational coding. Gottman’s background as a mathematician has brought a precision conducive to measuring success in couples therapy. Gottman’s dyadic skill-building interventions are simple and elegant. GMCT clients find them very easy to use.
Gottman’s communication-based approach informs the best angels of Imago Relationship Therapy. Imago therapists admire Gottman and quote him often. As couples therapy models go, Gottman is the real deal.
However, Gottman has at times been alternately warmly enthusiastic and coolly skeptical toward Susan Johnson’s Emotionally-focused Couples Therapy. I see the struggle between the two as an argument about ambition. Ambition for the direction that couples therapy will take in the future, as well as for the couples therapy clients to come.
Some see a lack of ambition as a philosophical weakness in Gottman’s approach. “Gottman lacks a poetic, aspirational dimension,” they say. Gottman doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in profound corrective emotional experiences emanating from the therapist. While Gottman appreciates the heuristic potential of attachment theory, at the end of the day he describes himself a first-class plumber.
Gottman helps couples to detect and flush out the emotional backup and help the couple build a “good enough” marriage. Gottman has been unfairly accused of lacking the loftier aspirational dimensions of EFT. But I have heard him dismiss Schnarch’s notion of the chosen few as silly and elitist.
EFT posits that couples act as secure bases for one another.
Unlike the other two couples therapy models, It has been argued that EFT has a structure and format somewhat similar to individual therapy. While both Imago and Gottman require the therapists to actively structure and guide communication, EFT differs in its less dyadic initial focus. In early stages of EFT, the therapist does more of the heavy lifting.
The EFT therapist presents as a perfect parent, validating and empathizing with whatever painful experiences are offered. The quality of the therapeutic bond will become a long-term clinical tool.
Unlike Imago and Gottman, EFT helps clients to communicate with each other without actually requiring them to soften their words in any way. EFT seeks to uncover and process raw primary emotion, not to meticulously deconstruct and reconfigure communication.
There is a saying in the EFT community which is “bad EFT is better than no EFT.” This rather brash bit of hubris contradicts the notion that quality of EFT it is highly contingent on the individual skills and clinical instincts of the couples therapist.
But at the end of the day, that’s why constant training is so vitally important for evidence-based couples therapists. These three couples therapy models are each a different but complementary pathway toward a deeper empathic connection.
While there are excellent couples therapists who are devotees of just one model…we prefer to hire clinicians who are deeply cross-trained across multiple models.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.