Category Archives: Gottman Method

4 Signs that Your Marriage is Headed for Divorce

Couples therapist John Gottman has identified 4 behaviors that are so destructive to relationships that they will almost certainly lead a married couple to divorce.

Due to their ominous nature, he calls them the “4 horsemen of the apocalypse” and because of their destructive nature, they must be stopped at all cost.

Although we almost inevitable end up engaging in these behaviors, it is important to be vigilant about their presence and make conscious efforts to reduce or minimize their impact on your marriage.

Want to know what the four horsemen are? Let’s go through them one at a time:


Couples who divorce often have an unfavorable ratio between complaints and appreciations. John Gottman has argued that about 2/3 issues that married couples fight about have to do with personality differences that are ultimately unresolvable. In strong marriages, couples find ways to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of these differences. They realize that we don’t marry a partner simply to be with a carbon copy of ourselves. In married couples who end up divorcing, however, differences instead turn into annoyances, and annoyances into fights. Instead of asking for constructive changes from one’s partner, or taking the time to understand each partner’s perspective, couples headed for divorce instead engage in a barrage of complaints. In many marriages that are close to the point of divorce, partners often feel that they are always being criticized or are never doing things right. After a while such a marriage becomes tiresome, and each partner begins to retreat in order to self-protect.


When you feel attacked and criticized, you defend. Defensiveness is one of the hallmarks of a failing marriage. Instead of having conversations and being curious about each other, couples who are on their way to a divorce, tend to simply stick to their guns and play the blame game. Instead of listening for their partner’s feeling and showing that they care, they instead focus on telling their partner why their complaint is unreasonable or wrong. Over time, each partner becomes an island onto themselves, focused simply on proving their own point at the expense of their partner. In this kind of atmosphere, each partner ends up feeling not understood and this of course leads to emotional disconnection. When you are at war, you retreat behind a wall and stop making yourself vulnerable and receptive to your partner. With so much effort dedicated to defending, love dwindles, and both partners often end up feeling deprived and unhappy.


Being in an intimate relationship with a partner is not only a source of joy and love. We often also experience intense anger and even hatred. When our partner disappoints us, when we feel afraid of losing them, or when we don’t feel unconditionally cared for, intense anger is often evoked in us. Although the adult part of us realizes that love is never unconditional, the child within often has a fantasy that it is. When our inner child feels deprived, strong feelings can be evoked that can lead us call our partner names and make comments that undercut our partners’ self-esteem. However, it pays to think twice before saying such things. John Gottman found that couples who end up divorcing, tend to have a high rate of contempt and hostility toward each other. Whereas strong marriages are slanted toward interactions that serve to build each other up, couples who end up divorcing oftentimes end up in negative cycles of cutting each other down.


Although some couples think simply ignoring their spouse is a pathway toward peace, fact is, the absence of a response, can be like depriving your partner of oxygen. Researchers on human attachment have found a lack of response a much greater sign of danger than an angry response. For this reason, many couples actually pick fights or provoke their partner into feeling angry or jealous. At least, with this response, they know their partner “sees” them and that they more than likely care. When our partner simply ignores us, it is easy to feel that we don’t even exist. At the level of our “animal” instinct or mammalian brain this often gets interpreted as a danger signal that we are without support and that nobody cares about our existence. Since at our core we are social beings, such absence of love is a threat to our basic survival needs and can send us into panic. In certain partners who had parents who often were absent, any resemblance of this deprivation will evoke fear and anger at their partner for inducing this fear. John Gottman also found that couples who stop acknowledging their partners existence and start to live parallel lives are at the greatest risk for divorce. It is often much easier to restore connection in couples who fight a lot, than it is to restore it, in couples who have simply shut down their emotional response to each other. So the next time you give your spouse the cold shoulder or ignore their bids for connection, know that you are causing harm to your marriage, and try to find at least some way to engage.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples develop better communication skills and restore emotional connection.                     To read more, visit my website:

Approaches to Couples Counseling: The Gottman Method

Gottman Method Couples Counseling is one of the most popular and contemporary approaches to couples counseling used by couples therapists today. 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.

A Research-Based Approach to Couples Counseling:

John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher who has spent more than 40 years researching couples. Based on his research, he claims to be able to predict which married couples will divorce and which will stay married with 90 % accuracy.

One of the innovations of Gottman’s approach to research was that he observed how couples interacted in a live-in environment just like in the show Big Brother. Through the multiple cameras installed, he was able to see how couples interacted naturally. By studying hundreds of couples this way, he was able to distinguish certain differences in the behaviors of the couples who have successful marriages and the couples who end up getting divorced or separated.

Based on his research Gottman has constructed a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in, which today has become known as “The Sound Relationship House”

The Sound Relationship House:

John Gottman's Sound Relationship House

The Sound Relationship House contains all the elements found to predict relationship success in what is now called the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling.

First we have the pillars of the relationship: Trust and Commitment. These are fundamental to creating the boundaries for there to even be a relationship. They involve being faithful to each other and developing the trust needed to be emotionally vulnerable. According to Gottman, without these pillars in place, you cannot build a sound relationship.

Once the boundaries of the relationship have been established, couples can begin to focus on creating a house in which they want to live.

friendship system
The Gottman Method emphasizes the importance of building a strong “friendship system”. Investing energy in building a positive connection and knowledge of each other’s inner worlds will make your relationship more fulfilling, and will also make it more resilient to weathering storms








The Friendship System:

The foundation of a good relationship is what Gottman Method Couples Counselors refer to as “the Friendship System”. The friendship system contains all the elements that make a marriage worthwhile.

One of the building blocks of the friendship system is what Gottman calls “Building Love Maps”. The goal here is for couples to develop a clear and accurate knowledge of what makes each other tick. You have to allocate “room” in you brain for the other person and to truly know who they are. You have to have a “map” of your partner’s world, otherwise, who are you really in a relationship with, but yourself?

In the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, couples are also advised to build each other up through creating a culture of openly sharing their “fondness and admiration” for each other. Getting in the habit of sharing positive thoughts and feelings rather than withholding them is often a very simple thing do, and can help build a stronger sense of connection that will help partners weather storms much better, since each partner feels appreciated and loved.

An interesting novelty of Gottman’s research is the idea of “turning towards”, which denotes all the little micro interactions we engage in when we drop what we are doing to respond to something our partner is interested in. They are little moments of connection that seem minor and insignificant, but start to wane when couples grow distant or begin to not like each other much.

Finally, Gottman advocates that partners find ways to laugh at disagreements, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and otherwise adopt a positive and lighthearted perspective. The opposite of “adopting a positive perspective” is what Gottman calls “negative sentiment override” where everything your partner says or does is interpreted through a lens of past hurt and wrong-doings. In this mode of operating, you are often searching for the negative intention in what your partner is saying, and are inclined to choose the worst possible interpretation of their actions.

Together these four elements create a strong friendship filled with love, affection, and intimacy.

Only when couples have a strong friendship as their base is there enough love in the “love tank” to make them endure the more difficult times and the many disagreements in values and preferences that are bound to happen over time.

Managing Conflict and Fulfilling Dreams:

The upper elements of the sound relationship house include conflict management skills, as well as the creation of shared meaning and helping each other fulfill your dreams.

“Conflict management” is about learning to communicate with your partner in ways that do not make them defensive, and yet makes you feel heard. This often entails suspending your desire to heard so you can hear what your partner is saying from their perspective and taking turns to be the listener and the talker.

“Making Life Dreams Come True” is about creating dialogue around each partner’s dreams and growth ambitions, so that each person feels that they have a voice in the relationship and feels that their dreams for the future are not being trampled upon or silenced in the name of getting along.

As the Gottmans write: “The bottom line is this: You don’t want to have the kind of relationship in which you win and are influential in the relationship but wind up crushing your partner’s dream. You want the kind of relationship in which each of you support one another’s dreams”.   

“Creating shared meaning”, refers to creating rituals within the relationship and establishing an agreed upon culture that defines shared practices that make both partners feel connected. This could involve the agreed upon routine of having family dinners together, of praying together, or of never going to bed angry with each other.

How Can Gottman Method Couples Counseling Help You and Your Partner?

The Gottman Method of Couples Counseling is about teaching couples the skills needed to build their own sound relationship house. The assumption is that all couples can learn to emulate the practices that successful couples engage in and can build new habits to replace old ones that have not been working.

The Gottman Method is a skills-based approach to creating a strong relationship. By doing more of the right things, and doing less of the relationship-damaging things, you can make your relationship grow in the direction of greater intimacy and satisfaction.

Does the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling Work?

Man wondering if he has a personality disorderLearning some of the skills of successful couples communication and friendship building can be immensely useful to couples who are struggling to get their needs met when they simply use their automatic gut reactions.

Being more intentional about how to have conversations by learning more skillful ways to approach your partner can definitely lead to significant improvements in the overall happiness in a relationship.

One of the limitations of the Gottman Method is that it works more from the outside-in than from the inside-out. In other words, the approach is about changing your relationship by adopting a set of rules for how to interact. At first these rules can seem unnatural or forced since they are being imposed from without rather than emerging from within.

In my own couples therapy practice I therefore believe in combining multiple approaches to couples counseling. Although I have training in the Gottman Method and frequently teach my clients new skills, I also have a sound understanding of other more emotion-focused approaches that work from the inside out.

In my opinion, couples need more than skills to succeed in their relationships. They also need a deeper understanding of their own needs and desires, and an emotional experience of greater closeness with their partner.

More Couples Therapy Resources:

If you would like to learn some of the techniques utilized by couples therapists to help couples build happier relationships, sign up for my free e-book: The Secrets of Happy Couples (click on image):

Couples Guide

Also, if you are in the mood for more in-depth articles on common issues faced by couples, visit my relationship blog: Couples Insight:

relationship blog

For more information about the Gottman Method, have a look at the following articles:

heart symbolizing intimacy> 5 Easy Ways to Improve Intimacy in Your Marriage

Learn 5 simple Gottman techniques that can help you improve intimacy in your marriage…

Broken heart symbolizing divorce

> 4 Signs that Your Marriage is Headed for Divorce

Learn the 4 behaviors John Gottman has identified as being the most destructive to a relationship…

How to make up after a fight > How to Make Up After a Fight (and Learn From It)

Learn John Gottman’s 5-step method for resolving arguments after a big blow up has happened…


Dr. Rune Moelbak

About Me: I am a psychologist and ICEEFT certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. I have received training in the Gottman Method as well as emotionally focused couples therapy. To read more about couples therapy, visit my website:

5 Easy Ways to Improve Intimacy in Your Marriage

Do you sometimes feel you have very little in common with your partner or spouse? Do you often feel lonely in your relationship or marriage? Do you silently ask yourself if you and your partner are slowly growing apart?

If so, you are not alone. Many couples struggle to maintain intimacy and stay emotionally connected over time. The good news is, connection and intimacy in your marriage or relationship is something you can build. Here are five ways to improve intimacy in your marriage or relationship:

1. Empathize – Don’t Problem-Solve:

When your partner opens up to you about a concern they are having at work or elsewhere, don’t try to solve their problem. Instead, try to connect with their feelings. Show that you understand what your partner must be going through, how difficult it must be to be in their shoes. Encourage your partner to tell you more about what bothers them; show interest. Have your partner tell you enough about their feelings, opinions, and thoughts so that if your friend asked you to tell them why your partner is upset, you would be able to give them an accurate summary. Sometimes, all we want from each other is someone who will hear us out without being judgmental, without siding with “the enemy”, and without giving us advise based on their own perspective. Feeling understood rather than evaluated, can greatly increase our sense of intimacy and connection with our partner.

2. Create Rituals of Connection:

Do you really know what is going on with your partner at work? Do you know what worries are on their mind? Instead of leaving these kinds of questions unanswered, why not build in a ritual of sitting down for dinner or for late evening tea, to check in about each other’s day? Turn off the TV and cell phone and make this your daily together-time. Maybe set aside 15 minutes for each person to share about their day. When focus is on your partner, make it all about them, and don’t redirect the conversation to yourself. The goal is not to bring up concerns about each other, but to discuss all the external stressors and successes that are going on at work or with other people. The goal is to strengthen the conviction that you have an ally in each other and are facing the world together. This sense of togetherness and support is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage over time.

3. Share Your Spontaneous Reactions:

Famous couples researcher, John Gottman, discovered that healthy couples share many more of their spontaneous reactions with each other than couples who are disconnected. Couples who complain that they just don’t have anything to talk to each other about anymore, forget that connection is not always about depth of conversation. Get in the habit of sharing your reactions to even mundane things. Did you like your cup of coffee this morning? Share it. Did you laugh at a Facebook post? Let your partner know. These little invitations to connect are important to the health and intimacy of your relationship. In relationships where partners feel disconnected, Gottman found that not only are these little “bids for connection” few and far between, they are also often met with lack of interest from the partner. If your partner makes a bid for connection, be sure not to turn them down or ignore them. If you routinely do, they will soon stop sharing and your level of intimacy will slowly wither away.

4. Invite Deeper Conversations:

Sometimes when couples get into the doldrum of things, they may interact with each other in routine-like ways that can become  deadening or boring and can decrease the sense of intimacy. Couples may start to feel like they are out of things to talk about or that they already know their partners position on different topics. In such cases, it usually pays to ask more philosophical or personal questions, to get at your partner’s deeper underlying thoughts and feelings. Your partner likes to travel: Why is this so important to them? How might this relate to their background or childhood history in some way? It’s important to your partner to be on time: Why do they attach importance to punctuality? Where does that value stem from? What feelings do they have about this issue? Learn to become interested in the deeper motivations, desires, and values of your partner. It is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage and have more meaningful conversations with your partner.

5. Get Away from the Everyday:

Sometimes what couples really need to rediscover their connection and improve their intimacy is to create new experiences and memories together. It often pays to plan a trip or take time away from the everyday routine. If you always go for dinner and a movie on Fridays, shake it up a little. Try something new. Stay overnight at a hotel in a different city. Take turns planning an outing, by looking up events in the local newspaper. Agree to be open-minded about your partner’s suggestions and try out an event your partner is interested in without judging or dragging your feet. A relationship is a living thing, and new experiences can help give new life to your shared existence and improve intimacy in your marriage.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples reconnect and improve intimacy in their relationship or marriage. Read more about my approach to couples therapy.

5 Easy Ways to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

talk bubbles

How to Stop Arguing and Start Communicating:

Most couples arguments are like rituals. Every now and then when each partner has bottled things up long enough, a fight will erupt and fury will be unleashed. These kinds of fights can often be cathartic, but they rarely if ever solve anything.

Why? Because when one partner is dishing out, the other is busy preparing a come-back. The result is that aggression by the one, leads to aggression by the other. Insult gets rebutted with insult, and no real constructive change comes out of it.

Wouldn’t it be great, however, if the things you complain about could actually get resolved? And wouldn’t it be nice if your partner would feel understood to the point where he or she no longer keeps criticizing you about the same old issues?

Here are my 5 easy to implement communication skills that will help you get your point across and improve your relationship…

1.    Stick with the Facts

One of the surest ways to get your partner’s anger boiling is to label their actions using your own choice phrases. Nouns and adjectives used to describe the other person will often make them feel judged and ready to rebuff. Calling someone “inconsiderate” is different from pointing out what the other person did that felt inconsiderate to YOU. You will usually obtain a much better response from your loved one, if you simply describe the situation at hand. Recount  the other person’s actions without attributing evil motivations or categorizing these actions as good or bad.  “When you took 30 minutes to get ready this morning, it made us late for work” is quite different from saying “You are always late in the morning and it’s very inconsiderate”.

2.    Use “I feel…”

It is  common nowadays to make fun of the therapist who helps couples communicate better by having each partner rephrase their criticism with the opening statement: “I feel…” Nevertheless, when done right, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against another person’s feelings. Rephrasing your criticism in terms of how something made you feel, removes the focus from the wrong-doings of your partner, and puts focus instead on your own perceptions and experiences. For example, saying “When you entered the house without saying hello to me, I felt disappointed and started to think that you don’t really care about me”, invites a quite different response than: “Why did you not say hello when you came home today; you obviously don’t care!” The focus here is really not so much on using the phrase “I feel”, as it is about qualifying your annoyance as a result of how you viewed the situation rather than the objective wrongness of the other person.

3.    Ask for what you want – not for what you don’t want

One thing that is exceedingly difficult for people in relationships is to express what they want rather than what they don’t want. It is quite easy to notice what we don’t want. Our feelings often alert us when someone has overstepped a boundary or acted in a way that we consider unacceptable. However, underneath every complaint lies an unexpressed wish. Instead of saying, “I don’t want you to stay out late with your friends all the time: When are you ever going to spend time with me?”, it might be better to say: “I really wish we could spend more time together. What do you say we arrange a date night?” In the first example, it is easy for your partner to think they are being criticized and being told what to do. In the second example, it is a lot more difficult to feel defensive. Here what you are really expressing is that you value something about your partner, and who can really get annoyed about that?

4.    Be Fair in Your Assessment

When you get angry or upset, it is easy to build a case in your mind for why you are justified in being angry or upset. Oftentimes this can lead you to make totalitarian statements that are almost always wrong. Saying things like “you ALWAYS go and watch TV without helping me with dinner”, is probably not entirely accurate. Because terms like ALWAYS and NEVER are almost always NOT true, your partner is likely to feel misjudged when you use them. Now instead of addressing the real issue, the conversation will more than likely become about the fairness of your judgment. “Don’t you remember that I cooked dinner for you the other day?!” So BE fair. It is the best way to make sure your partner will be able to hear your issue.

5.    Become a Good Listener

When your partner brings up a concern they have about you, it is easy to become defensive. Instead of hearing what your partner’s concern is, it is tempting to instead think of a reason why your partner is wrong, or to return the insult by blaming your partner for something as well. Instead of doing this, try to really understand what your partner is feeling unhappy about. Set aside your own complaints for a moment and become curious about how your partner really views the world. Why is going out more often important to him? Why does spending money on frivolous things annoy her? Do you really know what meaning he or she attributes to these events? Try to ask questions until you can repeat back to your partner exactly why it is they feel dissatisfied. If you model this behavior, likelihood is that your partner will feel really understood, and will return the favor next time… 

About me: I am a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. For more information about couples therapy, please visit my website.

Things We Can Learn from Happy Couples

Happy couple in couples therapy

It’s all supposed to be very rosy: Two people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. That’s what the fairy tale states…

And yet underneath the hood of every romantic relationship, we find one thing that all relationships have in common: they are all a lot of work.

The Perpetual Issues of Couples

As famous couples therapist, John Gottman, frequently says: To pick a partner is to pick a set of problems…

This does not mean that there are not plenty of moments of joy and closeness in every relationship. What it means is that we should expect that we will also be different from our partner on a number of key issues that are important to us.

Gottman calls these differences our perpetual conflicts, and every couple has them. One partner, for example, likes to travel the world and experience new things, whereas the other prefers the comforts of the known and would like to stay home more. Such an issue is not easily resolved because it is rooted in very deeply held values and personality preferences. It cannot be solved as easily as simply asking someone to take out the trash more often… To compromise on a perpetual issue often feels like giving up a valued piece of oneself…

From Gridlock to Dialogue

What is different between the couples who stay together versus the couples who eventually split up is that they accept this about their relationship. Instead of engaging in a perpetual warfare to change the other person, the successful couple finds ways to acknowledge their differences, to laugh about them, and to engage in a dialogue, not so much about the issues themselves, as about the underlying experiences that have created these personal preferences to begin with.

The perpetual difference now becomes an opportunity to understand something about your partner… The partner who does not like to travel, may be able to share the real reason behind wanting to be home-bound, and that may involve the ability to share some of the underlying fears that he or she has about the unknown and the unfamiliar. The partner who feels bored and restless when not on the go, may be able to identify what is so important about always experiencing something new, and perhaps even more so, why it is so unsettling to find interest and comfort in the familiar.

If a couple can engage each other in a conversation not just about the surface issues, but about their underlying feelings, fears, and desires, they have managed to move out of an initial gridlock on the issue and into an open a dialogue that is therapeutic for both. Maybe, with the safety of knowing that my partner understands me and cares about my position, I can feel free to venture out of my comfort zone, whatever that may be. I no longer have to feel like we are in a tug of war or that I am being asked to become another person.

The Not-so-Happy Couple

In not-so-happy couples, however, warfare on these perpetual issues has frequently resulted in the erosion of the mutual trust and safety that would allow such discussions of underlying meanings to take place.

As partners grow increasingly frustrated with each other’s differences, the consequence is often an escalation of the frequency of fights, and a tendency to fight “dirty”. Relationships may increasingly evolve into “power struggles”, where each partner fights for their own way, even if this means crushing the other person’s dreams in the process.

John Gottman’s research on couples shows that as couples grow increasingly dissatisfied with each other, they begin to attack each other’s personalities instead of addressing their mutual differences in a respectful and caring manner. By doing so, each person retreats into a defensive posture that makes it “dangerous” to share their more vulnerable side. Our partner can now become an “enemy” and “threat” to our sense of dignity and self-preservation, and a culture of contempt can develop that makes us question if we are even good friends anymore.

The Process of Couples Therapy

The first step in couples therapy is therefore often to reestablish safety and trust between partners. This means first of all stopping any additional bleeding, by stopping the vicious spiral of attack-defense. Only then can the process of healing past emotional wounds and restoring mutual trust begin. We must learn to become friends again, so we can once again share our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires without being afraid that such acts of courage will later be used against us.

The bad news is that we were never really taught how to do this. We were not provided with an instruction manual when we initially fell in love, and we never attended a “How to Make Relationships Work” class in high school. We therefore often stumble and fumble through our relationships, and unwittingly find ourselves repeating failed patterns over and over…

The good news is that an increasing body of literature on couples and couples therapy is beginning to pinpoint the skills and processes needed for couples to successfully make their relationships work. With the right knowledge in hand, couples can learn what to do and what not to do, and can begin to become more skillful at this most challenging of human tasks…

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: Rune Moelbak is an ICEEFT-certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. He has completed level-2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy and is a fully certified emotionally-focused couples therapist. He regularly works with couples who are looking to rebuild trust, friendship, and passion in their relationships. To read more about his approach to couples therapy: visit

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