John Gottman


A few weeks ago, one of my posts received a comment that was worth a whole post:

I am also a therapist (though I’m still in training). I’m wondering if you would be willing/able to recommend some family therapy books you’ve found helpful. My program is very focused on the individual and I’m trying to fill in some gaps and find your perspective on therapy to be very resonant with my own.

I’d love to recommend some family therapy books! My program was extremely family-systems focused, which I’ve been grateful for since leaving school. If you want to see an exhaustive reading list (I can’t remember having been assigned a real dud), you can see reverse-order lists of everything I read in my first year here and my second year here.

I’ll try to create a bare-bones list for you here—much more useful for you and a good exercise for me. I should warn you before I begin that I am super nerdy when it comes to family therapy reading and I can imagine many in my cohort rolling their eyes at my “must-read” list. If you are nerdy like me, though, here goes:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A classic and profound book by Bateson’s MRI team, the first and probably still the best attempt to apply system theory to human relationships.

Susan Johnson’s books The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors. Johnson combines system-thinking, Rogers-style experiential therapy, and attachment theory, creating one of my most-used therapy models.

John Gottman’s books, especially The Marriage Clinic and The Science of Trust. Gottman has taken up the project started with Pragmatics, largely abandoned by family therapy, and is doing it in fine style, with solid science.

Metaframeworks: This book presents my favorite meta-model of family therapy, combining the best parts of the many family therapy models.

A major work by each family therapy model-builder is also important reading: Haley, Madanes, Satir, Whitaker, Minuchin, Bowen, Selvini-Palazolli/Milan group, Weakland/Fisch/MRI group, deShazer/Insoo-Berg, Epson/White, and Hubble/Duncan/Miller. Keep in mind that their books are presentations of informed opinion, not science. Every one of these folks have got some things right and some wrong. They have also advanced the field significantly, and are the largest part the conversation on how to think about families.

Finally, a couple things that I was not assigned in school, but I found extremely helpful in making sense of the flood of information. First, a grounding in systems/complexity theory: Family therapists think of themselves as system-theory experts and throw around a lot of lingo that they may or may not really understand. It’s easy to get confused in this situation. The best introduction to modern system thinking is still Capra’s The Web of Life (though we’re overdue for an update). Also, check out Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature. Second, familiarity with Wilber’s integral theory really helped me navigate the heated arguments about modernism vs. post-modernism and intervention at the level of individuals vs. family systems vs. larger systems. Check out Integral Psychology or A Theory of Everything.

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John Gottman is best known for his research on couples (which I’ve written a few things about here) but I think that some of his most important work has been distinguishing two distinct parenting styles: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing. I’m reading his new book, The Science of Trust, right now, and he goes over these findings because it turns out these styles of relating to emotions have big ramifications on building or losing trust in one’s partner. I’ll write more about that as I come to understand it better. (And by the way, if you are a serious couples therapy nerd like me, this book is great. Check it out.)

The basic idea is that parents have different reactions to emotions in their children. We call these reactions “meta-emotions” because they are emotions about emotions. “Emotion coaching” means when an emotion shows up in your child, you treat it as useful information, you engage your child around it in a way that tells them it is OK to have that emotion. “Emotion dismissing” is the opposite. You communicate that they are choosing to have this emotion that you find unpleasant and that making that choice is unacceptable. (This is similar to a problematic parenting technique called “mystification” which I wrote a little about here.)

Clearly this is a potentially complicated phenomenon, because we can have different emotional reactions to each emotion in our kids. We may, for example, have a coaching reaction when a child shows, say, pride, but a dismissing reaction when they show anger. Or vice versa. And our reaction may be different in different contexts, like at home versus out shopping. And other cultural factors are at play, too, like gender or age of the child, which can cause us to react differently. For the following lists, Gottman is using the coaching/dismissing distinction with a broad brush. The list items are direct quotes from pp. 181-188, but the list titles are my paraphrases (note that “affect” is psych-speak for “emotion”):

What Emotion-Dismissing Parents Do:

  • They didn’t notice lower-intensity emotions in themselves or in their children (or in others, either). In one interview we asked two parents about how they reacted to their daughter’s sadness. The mom asked the dad, “Has Jessica ever been sad?” He said he didn’t think so, except maybe one time when she went to visit her grandmother alone and she was 4 years old. “When she boarded the airplane alone,” he said, “she looked a little sad.” But all children actually have a wide range of emotions in just a few short hours. A crayon may break, and the child becomes immediately sad and angry. These parents didn’t notice much of Jessica’s more subtle emotions.
  • They viewed negative affects as if they were toxins. They wanted to protect their child from ever having these negative emotions. They preferred a cheerful child.
  • They thought that the longer their child stayed in the negative emotional state, the more toxic its effect was.
  • They were impatient with their child’s negativity. They might even punish a child just for being angry, even if there was no misbehavior.
  • They believed in accentuating the positive in life. This is a kind of Norman Vincent Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking philosophy. This is a very American view. The idea is: “You can have any emotion you want, and if you choose the have a negative one, it’s your own fault.” So, they think, pick a positive emotion to have. You will have a much happier life if you do. So they will do things like distract, tickle, or cheer up their child to create that positive emotion.
  • They see introspection or looking inside oneself to examine what one feels as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
  • They usually have no detailed lexicon or vocabulary for emotions.

What Emotion-Coaching Parents Do:

  • They noticed lower-intensity emotions in themselves and in their children. The children didn’t have to escalate to get noticed.
  • They saw these emotional moments as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching.
  • They saw these negative emotions–even sadness, anger, or fear–as a healthy part of normal development.
  • They were not impatient with their child’s negative affect.
  • They communicated understanding of the emotions and didn’t get defensive.
  • They helped the child verbally label all the emotions he or she was feeling. What does having words do? They are important . With the right words, I think the child processess emotions usually associated with withdrawal (fear, sadness, disgust) very differently. I think it becomes a bilateral frontal-lobe processing. Withdrawal emotions still are experienced, but they are tinged with optimism, control, and a sense that it’s possible to cope.
  • They empathized with negative emotions, even with negative emotions behind misbehavior. For example, they might say: “I understand your brother made you angry. He makes me mad too sometimes.” They do this even if the do not approve of the child’s misbehavior. In that way they communicate the value, “All feelings and wishes are acceptable.”
  • They also communicated their family’s values. They set limits if there was misbehavior. In that way they communicated the value, “Although all feelings and wishes are acceptable, not all behavior is acceptable. (We had other parents who did everything else in coaching but this step of setting limits, and their children turned out aggressive.) They were clear and consistent in setting limits to convey their values.
  • They problem-solved when there was negative affect without misbehavior. They were not impatient with this step, either. For example, they may have gotten suggestions from the child first.
  • They believed that emotional communication is a two-way street. That means that when they were emotional about the child’s misbehavior, they let the child know what they were feeling (but not in an insulting manner). They said that was probably the strongest form of discipline, that the child is suddenly disconnected from the parent–less close, more “out.”

Teaching by Emotion-Dismissing Parents

  • They have lots of information in an excited manner at first.
  • They were very involved with the child’s mistakes.
  • They saw themselves as offering “constructive criticism.”
  • The child increased the number of mistakes as the parents pointed out errors. This is a common effect during the early stages of skill acquisition.
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents escalated their criticism to insults, using trait labels such as “You are being careless” or “You are spacey.” They sometimes talked to each other about the child in the child’s presence, as in: “He is so impulsive. That’s his problem.”
  • As the child made more mistakes, the parents sometimes took over, becoming intrusive.
Teaching by Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • Gave little information to the child, but enough for the child to get started.
  • Were not involved with the child’s mistakes (they ignored them).
  • Waited for the child to do something right, and then offered specific praise and added a little bit more information. (The best teaching offers a new tool, just within reach. Then learning feels like remembering.)
  • The child attributed the learning to his or her own discovery.
  • The child’s performance also went up and up.
Outcomes for Children of Emotion-Coaching Parents
  • They had higher reading and math scores at age 8, even controlling statistically for IQ differences at age 4.
  • This effect was mediated through the attentional system. Coached children had better abilities with focusing attention, sustaining attention, and shifting attention.
  • Coached children had greater self-soothing ability even when upset during a parent-child interaction.
  • Coached children self-soothed better, delayed gratification better, and had better impulse control.
  • Parents didn’t have to down-regulate negativity as much.
  • Coached children don’t whine very much.
  • Coached children had fewer behavior problems of all kinds (aggression and depression).
  • Coached children had better relations with other children.
  • Coached children had fewer infectious illnesses.
  • As coached children got into middle childhood and then adolescence, they kept having appropriate “social moxie.”
  • Emotion-coaching parents also buffered the children in our sample from almost all the negative effects of an ailing marriage, separation, or a divorce (except for their children’s sadness). The negative effects that disappeared were: (1) acting out with aggression, (2) falling grades in school, and (3) poor relations with other children.
  • As Lynn Katz, Carol Hooven, and I reported in our book Meta-Emotion, coached children, as they develop, seem to have more emotional intelligence.
Steps to Learn Emotion Coaching
  1. Noticing the negative emotion before it escalates.
  2. Seeing it as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy.
  3. Validating or empathizing with the emotion.
  4. Helping the child give verbal labels to all emotions the child is feeling.
  5. Setting limits on misbehavior, or problem-solving if there is no misbehavior. If the parent doesn’t do this last step, the kids tend to wind up becoming physically or verbally aggressive toward other children.

John Gottman is a rock star of the science of marriage relationships. He studies them in great detail, minute interactions, facial expressions, heart rate, stress hormones. Using that data he can predict with a high degree of accuracy which relationships are heading for happiness or unhappiness, stability or divorce. I should say that this is prediction in a technical, statistical sense, not in the sense of prophecy. He can’t tell you if your relationship will fail, only whether your relationship behaves in similar ways to those that have failed in the past. Still, that’s a lot better than nothing, and it’s been enough for him to build an exciting theory of relationships.

In his theory, the most important, without-which-all-is-lost part of your relationship is the friendship. By friendship, he means several very specific things. Here is a summary of his summary from his newest book, The Science of Trust:

  1. Track your partner’s inner experience by asking lots of questions and remembering the answers.
  2. Make a habit of finding things to appreciate your partner for and letting them know each time you do.
  3. Notice the things your partner does and says that could be responded to, and respond positively to them. Pretty much all of them—you can miss or fail to respond to at most 3 out of 20.

If you are not doing this work, he says, you are not behaving like couples who manage to sustain satisfying, meaningful, passionate relationships, who manage conflict well enough, and who stay together longer than 6 years. Maintaining friendship in this manner is the bare minimum.

One of the ways that John Gottman says people talk themselves out of their marriages is “rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions” in between arguments. That is, instead of making up stories about how their troubles are passing and circumstantial, they make up stories about how their troubles have to do with permanent flaws in their partner’s character. Over time, this version of the story solidifies and they reinterpret the entire history of the relationship using that filter.

This is another of Gottman’s gendered findings; it is mostly a problem because the men (in heterosexual marriages, at least) do it. It’s a problem when women do it, too, they just don’t tend to as much.

The alternative to rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions is rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions, and this is exactly what Gottman found that the people in marriages that ended up happy and stable did. It’s probably a good idea, then, to practice rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions if you can. Try thinking about the strengths of your relationship, good times, things you are proud of, ways that current conflict is passing and circumstantial. If that is difficult to do, think instead about couples counseling.  If you want to keep your relationship, you probably need help.

John Gottman’s research show evidence that one of the most important things in making a heterosexual relationship is that the male “accept influence” from the female. That is, the male listens to and is influenced by the ideas and opinions of the female. He shares power with her. If he does not do this, they will end up divorced 80% of the time.

One of the reasons Gottman is such a famous couples researcher is that he finds effects that strong. Your average couples researcher would love to find something that predicted anything about a couple’s future with 30% accuracy, but Gottman’s work is rife with 80% and up findings. 80% is huge. At 80%, you’ve left the realm of “more likely” behind and have solidly entered “probably.” If you are a man who has trouble conceding a point to your wife, you should take note. You will probably be much better off if you spend your energy scouring your conversations for ways to agree with your  wife than ways to disagree. If that is difficult, get some help with it.

And it does not go the other way. Gottman found that while wives tend to be good at accepting influence, whether they are or not did not correlate with anything he measured.

Which, of course, brings up the question of same-sex relationships. How does accepting influence influence things there? The answer, as is usually the case in couples research, is that we have no idea, which hip researchers are often apologizing for but rarely doing anything about. My advice is to notice and accept influence regardless of your gender or sexual orientation–better to lose arguments than  your relationship.

John Gottman says, in his book The Marriage Clinic, that there are basically two things that make the difference between couples who stay together and those who do not. First is what he calls the partners’ “uninfluenced stable steady states,” which are a result of the temperament of each partner plus the history of the relationship.  The second is the partners’ “influenced stable steady state,” which is the emotional direction that each partner takes, once they are interacting.

If the way you feel and act worsens when interacting with your partner–that is, if your influenced steady state is more negative than your uninfluenced steady state–you may well be heading for a divorce. The crucial question is, how much negativity from your partner does it take to turn your mood negative? If you can respond in a positive way to your partner, regardless of their mood or complaint, that’s a real strength. If you respond in a negative way, this is trouble. Negativity will tend to escalate in each conversation and throughout your relationship. Gottman says that if you cannot maintain a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative interactions at worst (that is, during conflict) you are heading towards (or are in) an unhappy relationship. If you dip below a 1 to 1 ratio, you are heading toward divorce.

“Negative affect reciprocity” is a closely-related pattern that Gottman says is the best predictor of happy or unhappy couples. (“Affect,” remember, is just a science-y word for emotion.) The extent to which you are more likely than usual to be negative when your partner is negative (as opposed to when your partner is neutral or positive), you are showing negative affect reciprocity. This could look a lot of ways, like responding to anger with your own anger, responding to criticism with stonewalling or defensiveness, responding to sadness with irritation, and so on.

Gottman says that negative interactions are inevitable, so what he calls “successful repair attempts” are all-important. That is, emotional repairs such as humor, taking responsibility, compromise, and soothing, must be offered, recognized, and accepted. When couples can recognize and accept all of each other’s repair attempts, he says, they are finished with therapy.

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