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Couples counseling, between Gottman and IMAGO

The proposition that one couples therapy perspective completely and fully fits all personalities and all couples’ problems is a difficult proposition for me to swallow.

There are different theories and practices guiding the therapy of couples, and I almost inevitably find myself - whole heartedly - accepting some of the fundamental premises each approach is coming from, and simultaneously having doubts and more questions than answers, when it comes to some other premises or application of a specific approach.

The Gottman Approach

For example, I find myself very drawn to some of Gottman’s ideas stipulated in his book the marriage clinic.

“In marriage, we look at the balance of positivity to negativity in the couples interactions.

Our theory assumes that every relationship is a system that develops its own balance or stable steady states, with respect to the ratio of positivity and negativity in behavior, perception, and physiology. The stable steady states are a way of quantifying the old idea of homeostasis in general systems theory”[1]

Far more than merely common sense, Gottman’s research suggesting that successful couples have a much higher ration of positive to negative interactions is also quite a “ scientific “ breakthrough in mind, as it guides my conception of the kinds of “ research proven “ interventions all couples’ counselors must consider while doing couples therapy.

I also find particularly appealing his concept of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stone walling).

Not only do I find these to be strongly valid between couples, but in any human interaction in general.

On the other hand, I find myself struggling with some of Gottman’s suggestions. For example, Gottman suggests that accepting your partner’s influence is a crucial aspect of creating a sound marital house.

He further suggests that compromising and “solving the solvable problems” is a crucial skill to master.

I do not necessarily contend that these suggestions are irrelevant, invalid, or even false in and of themselves. I do however find myself leaning to agreeing with Schnarsh in this regards, that compromising and accepting your partner’s influence as a “skill “that you learn and implement is more harmful than productive in the long term.

I contend that because if the individual practicing these skills is not “differentiated “doesn’t have a very well established and strong sense of self, it can lead to resentment and pulling away from interactions with the significant other.

The Schnarsh Approach

I find myself agreeing with Schanrsh that compromising and “coerced acceptance of influence “- if I may call it that for all intents and purposes of my argument- is settling to the lowest common denominator , and would be detrimental to the passion and level of excitement partner’s find in each other’s presence, and as such detrimental to the relationship itself.

I can’t pretend to have any conclusive opinions in this regard, It is something I would very much like to research and study more, but I am inclined to believe that a well “ differentiated “ person would practice these skills ( compromising and accepting influence ) , without seeing them ( and more importantly feeling them) as such.

Adding to my difficulty in picking one approach is that, – unsurprisingly so – I keep seeing concepts and ideas repeating themselves in the different approaches, but being described in different language or interpreted differently.

Take for example Gottman’s explanation of the diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) “ When danger is perceived, series of alterations is immediately initiated , ………When the heart speeds up beyond 100 beats per minute….the body starts secreting epinephrine…..the limbic system particularly the amygdala, hypothalamus, cigulategyrus, hippocampus, and prefrontal lobes, has been activated….Fight or flight reactions become more likely as the cortex is engaged to evaluate the stimulus conditions….The attentional system becomes an vigilance system detecting only cues of danger, and s severely limited in its ability to process information…..all these extreme physiological alterations happen in marital conflict….that is why fight or flight responses become more accessible, and creative problem solving goes out the window” [2]

The IMAGO Approach

Contrast that with IMAGO’s concept of the old or reptilian brain “it is where our survival mechanisms are located, which explains why - when danger strikes – we fight, flight, flee, freeze, hide, or submit. The reptilian brain is also concerned with safety…”[3]

Clearly, both approaches then see the body’s natural defense mechanisms as playing a significant role in both marital conflict, and therapy, but where IMAGO sees it as an important “educational “concept that needs to be explained to couples to help them understand their conflicts better, Gottman sees It as part of what he calls the “triad of balance” along with interactive behavior and perception.

So although the 2 theories recognize and integrate this concept (as one example) into their prospective approach, both do that in seemingly very different and unrelated ways. Personally I find that I accept the concept and its validity as well, but find myself unsure on which approach seems to be putting it into better use…

It occurs to me that all approaches have elements of truth into them, but that none are comprehensive enough to entice me to adopt them without alterations.

In the following section of the paper, I try to expand on the elements of the different approaches that I am inclined to believe would make sense to amalgamate together to build on the strengths of the different approaches to create – hopefully - a comprehensive approach

[1] The marriage clinic, Gottman, p 33

[2] The marriage clinic, Gottman, p 75

[3] Short term couples therapy, loquat, p 18


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Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Boston therapist and a Boston Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.


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