What is the Sound Relationship House? It seems that you can’t find a Gottman trained blogger or Gottman “informed” therapist website which doesn’t rhapsodize about it. They all seem to approach it in a similar way. 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 have been condensed into the ingenious 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 marital friendship.
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 therapists in their online writing emphasize that “Build Love Maps” is an instruction to ask and be curious, and they emphasize this point on their websites.
With some spouses, 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 be known by them as well.
There are many partners who because of bad parenting, or family-of-origin influences, are uncomfortable being questioned by their partner, even if the questions are well-intentioned and “open-ended.” This discomfort can sometimes be so automatic that curiosity never rears 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.
Share Fondness & Admiration. Typically, Gottman Therapist blogs write of this second story of the house, The Fondness & Admiration System, as the go-to essential antidote to contempt.
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 personal Fondness and Admiration stance can be expressed in ongoing softened start-ups and repair attempts. This takes us to the older Gottman remedy for contempt, building a culture of appreciation. Culture is expressed in everything you do, and that is, in my humble opinion, the most important thing about 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 because it also expresses a stance toward your partner.
But like building love maps, couples can sometimes have a different 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 squabble 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. Reframing the meaning of what you are doing to escort your partner into Negative Sentiment Override requires a deliberate and conscious effort.
I also think that it’s important for 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. 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 couples 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 congruent Life-Dreams certainly helps.
Create Shared Meaning. Couples who have Shared Meaning are more resilient. They have a higher, often trans-generational purpose which 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.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.