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Debunks a million myths, offers sound advice
on January 22, 2003
I practiced psychotherapy in New York City for fourteen years. Though I had training as a marriage counselor in addition to my main training as a psychotherapist, I turned away more couples than I accepted. Most years, I didn't take on more than one or two couples, if that.
There were many reasons for this, but fundamentally it was that marriage counseling rarely works. (About thirty-five to forty percent of the time, and half of those relapse, according to the best research.) I had made a vow when I went into training that I would never take on patients that I did not honestly believe I could help. (I can't say that I kept that vow sterling, being human--but I tried.) Most couples, I believed, could not be helped, so I didn't want to take their money or waste their time.
In hard, cold truth, most of what most marriage counselors teach is just made up. Concocted. Without any sound research base. That's just a fact. When I was in training, I was utterly shocked at this. I was appalled at the simple-minded dogmatism of marriage-counseling orthodoxy.
Most mental health care has a flimsier basis in research than its proponents admit (or even know, often), but in marriage counseling, the paucity of good research was almost total. (This evaluation of the low scientific basis of mental health care is not some private crackpot theory of mine; I wrote it up in my book "Cultures of Healing," which was published by the book-publishing arm of Scientific American in 1995 and will be republished, under a different title--"Health and Suffering in America: The Context and Content of Mental Health Care"--next year by Transaction Publishers/Rutgers. My point here is not to plug my book so much as to tell you that I know whereof I speak, and to encourage you to take my recommendation here seriously.)
If I had known John Gottman's work back then, I would have had an entirely different approach to treating couples, and I would have taken more of them on. (No one in my three years of training ever mentioned Gottman, and I went to a pretty respectable institute. Gottman is just so at odds with conventional wisdom in the field that he wasn't even taken seriously.)
Gottman's opinions--though he denies that they are opinions--are based on admirable, extensive, carefully analyzed research. While there is much to criticize methodologically about this research, and it certainly is nowhere near as conclusive as he says, at least he has done real work--not sat around making stuff up and pawning it off on students and patients. His is the best research of which I (now, many years later) know. Even if it isn't knock-down-drag-out conclusive, it is much better to have opinions based on extensive research and attempts to understand it rigorously than on no research, wild speculation, wishful thinking, and wooly feelings. Gotttman's opinions are very good, for the most part.
This book does a nice job of conveying the gist of his work, in clear, practical form.
In my experience, most marriage counselors do more harm than good and teach more made-up nonsense that practical wisdom. So unless you can find someone who trained with Gottman, I'd say DON'T go to a marriage counselor--buy this book.
If you ARE seeing a marriage counselor, read this book and discuss with your counselor where his or her views differ. Ask for the basis for what your counselor does differently. Maybe it will make sense. But if your counselor is not open to the possibility of modifying his or her approach based on what you find valuable here, at least for your therapy, fire him. Or her. Whatever. Just run.
Why only four stars? Two reasons: (1) Gottman does not allow that for some significant minority, the difficluties in marriage are much more complex and intractable. E.g., while he is right that ordinary neuroses themselves do not kill marriage--so long as you marry someone whose neuroses match up with yours, or who can tolerate yours--it is certainly the case that some mental illnesses, such as paranoia and borderline personality, make marriage extremely hard. (2) A little humility on Gottman's part would make this book much easier to read and leave more room for the intelligent, wise reader to disagree, modify, and make it his or her own. Gottman is much too taken with himself, and while his research is more extensive and careful than most anything else done in the field, marriage counseling ain't physics (or biology or even sociology), and it certainly should not be granted the authority Gottman claims for it.
This isn't the final word on marriage, but it is about the best of the overly-many words that have heretofore been uttered.