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Preventing COVID-19 meltdowns: Therapists tap technology to help couples battling relationship stress

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Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE - Relationship therapist Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman doesn't mince words when discussing strains the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on couples nationwide.

She tells of one husband-and-wife client duo and how the pandemic has "driven them crazy" when he comes home weekends from his high-stress, front-line medical worker job he took in another state to better make ends meet. They'll quickly argue over something as minimal as controlling the television remote control, drink some wine and then watch the situation deteriorate.

"There've been some physical attacks as well," she said of the couple. "Especially after the alcohol is involved."

Gottman and her husband, Dr. John Gottman, founders of The Gottman Institute and its Seattle-based Love Lab for relationship assessments, have accelerated plans to introduce an online version of their services for patients and therapists. Their 3-year-old startup, Affective Software, is expected to complete final testing of personal computer and smartphone applications this fall in an effort to "democratize" what they say is low-cost therapy for millions of couples at risk for domestic violence, alcoholism and financial anxiety as the pandemic continues.

"There's been an over 30% increase in incidents of domestic violence since the COVID pandemic began," John Gottman said. "And we're seeing this a lot in our private practice as well. Couples are stressed. The kids are home. People feel inadequate to handle online learning. Families are more in a pressure cooker - including being worried about the future, as all of us are."

Julie Gottman said increased alcohol use during the pandemic is particularly troubling, given how it exacerbates situations.

 

"In many people I know who are only drinking socially, it's reaching low-to-mid-alcoholic substance abuse levels," she said. "Because they're so anxious. And what they don't realize is, though they may feel less anxious during their imbibing of the alcohol, with alcohol being a toxin it irritates the central nervous system and increases anxiety and depression."

Her husband adds, ominously: "It disinhibits aggression. That's one of its main effects."

Clients receiving therapy at their Gottman Institute's Belltown location often pay up to $10,000 for relationship assessments that include being hooked up to sensors that monitor their interactions. The Gottman Assistant for Clinicians Telehealth product will cost $199 while the Gottman For Home smartphone product will range from $39 for a one-time purchase to $199 for an ongoing subscription.

Both versions will involve a detailed video questionnaire that couples fill out and receive feedback on. Couples record a pair of 10-minute videos recapping their week and discussing a source of conflict in their relationship. From there, they scroll though a dial to indicate their emotions at various points in the video and then fill out a questionnaire as part of the assessment they'll receive.

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