Updates from IITAP – Helping Couples Heal

Updates from IITAP

Working with Betrayal in Couples 

 Every year a portion of the 1800 Certified Sex Addiction Therapists gather outside Phoenix, Arizona for the annual conference.  This February was the 9th annual conference.  Though I have been a CSAT since 2009, this was my first trip to the conference.  As such, I thought I would write about what CSATs are working on and thinking about today.  

Drs. John and Julie Gottman presented the keynote speech on Thursday and discussed the Science of Trust and Betrayal.  Given the fact that the Gottman’s have an Institute (http://www.gottman.com/) and a large amount of product to sell, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the talk was entirely clinical and was not at all a marketing ploy to buy their products or attend their trainings.  As I am not a couples therapist, I found the research on Masters and Disasters quite interesting.  They have extensively studied what makes a couple a “Master” versus a “Disaster.”  Masters are couples that stay together and both are in high relationship satisfaction.  Disasters are couples who either break up or stay together but are in low relationship satisfaction. 

 The studies show that one of the things that predict divorce is the ration of positive to negative emotions during conflict.  For couples who are in a happy relationship, they have a 5 to 1 ration of positivity to negativity when discussing a conflict.  The unhappy couples have a 0.8 to 1 ratio meaning they are more negative in communication than positive.  The corrosive interactions are termed the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse by the Gottmans.  These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.  These reactions need to be turned into more positive actions such as using gentle start up, taking responsibility, building a culture of appreciation and engaging in physiological self-soothing. 

 So how do we make a relationship work?  The Gottmans provide 7 principles to make it work.  The first is to build love maps.  This means that you are aware of your partner’s internal psychological world.  We need to show interest in them, ask questions and remember the answers and take the time to check in with our partner’s emotional state.  The next thing we need to do is to nurture fondness and admiration.  This means we have to look at what our partner is doing right instead of focusing on what they are doing wrong!  We also need to express fondness and affection as well as build respect and intimacy.  This is something that we have to do often in small gestures.

 Another principle for making a relationship work is to turn toward bids of connection.  Both partners are often making bids for connection such as looking for attention, support, empathy, joy and adventure.  We need to laugh together and be affectionate and playful.  The fourth principle is to work to have positive sentiment override negative sentiment.  If the positive feelings we have toward our partner over ride that momentary emotional distance or anger it will help to make repair effective. 

 The fifth principle is to manage conflict constructively.  According to the presentation, 69% of conflict is not solvable.  There are times when personality conflicts among partners feel like mismatches.  Couples must process “past regrettable incidents.”  The Gottman-Rapoport Blueprint for conflict resolution includes using a soft start up instead of attacking.  Using repair and de-escalation in the discussion.  We need to be able to self sooth and work to find common ground and compromise. 

 Another very positive relationship principle is to help make our partner’s dreams come true.  This seems so simple yet is so profound.  In good relationships we nurture our partner’s dreams while we maintain our own.  The final principle is to create shared meaning with our partner.  When we do this, we create rituals of connection in our relationship.  This also means having shared values, goals and narratives. 

 As I was listening to this talk, I found the information very helpful and useful.  However, would it apply to couple’s in recovery from sex addiction?  When a partner finds out that their partner is engaging in compulsive sexual behavior, the trauma of discovery is potent enough to create the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Dr. Gottman proposes an Atone-Attune- Attach therapy method that could be helpful. 

 The first phase of this therapy, Atone, involves first exploring and validating the hurt partner’s PTSD.  Then the hurt partner asks questions with the betraying partner answering questions with transparency.  It is also suggested that at this phase the WHY question not be addressed and that detailed sexual questions not be asked as they can create triggers or ruminations for the partner.  The next key is to establish transparency and verification.  This Atone phase is very compatible with how we treat disclosure and the needs of partners in sex addiction treatment.

 The second phase is Attune.  In this phase the couple processes why the betrayal happened and work on conflict management.  They also suggest weekly meetings of the couple to process hurts, needs and feelings.  The final phase is to attach. In this phase, the couple works to create emotional connection and intimacy and focus on pro-relationship communication.  There is also a clear “formal high cost” or what we call non-negotiable for subsequent betrayals. 

 In reviewing the information for the writing of this blog, I come to the conclusion that the Gottman Method of couple’s work can be very applicable to work with couples that are in recovery from sex addiction.  Of course, every method requires some personalization for the couple and the specifics of the betrayal, but all in all, applying the concepts of Atone-Attune-Attach can be very helpful for couples working through recovery. 

 For more information on the Gottman Institute, please check out their website at www.gottman.com





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