MY HUSBAND TOM and I fought most of the way to the Dr. John Gottman lecture.
I don’t recall what the argument was about. I vaguely remember he was annoyed that I hadn’t gotten the Subaru’s headlight replaced, which I guess I must’ve agreed to do. I was annoyed that he expected me, a car dope, to accomplish something even remotely automotive. He carped that I wasn’t parking in the best lot. I carped that he was checking his BlackBerry for email instead of talking to his wife. And he’d forgotten something in his office, dammit, so we were going to be late to the “Making Marriage Work” lecture.
As it turned out, we weren’t late: A knot of people clogged the Town Hall entrance, waiting to pay $50 a couple—during a recession—to hear the nation’s pioneer in relationship science dispense the marriage secrets he’d spent a career uncovering. Thirty some years ago, as a young clinical psychologist, he set out to study the relationship dynamics and concurrent physiological responses of married couples. One newlywed pair at a time would spend a full 24 hours in a lushly appointed apartment with a placid view of the Montlake Cut, discussing matters of both agreement and conflict, while Gottman wired them for heart rate and brain function and numerous other physical variables.
Over months and years Gottman and his grad students tested and retested these same couples, gradually amassing a pile of data on the behaviors that make marriages work—and those that make them weak. As the study ripened and some couples divorced, the scientist began to see that certain behaviors could reliably predict a split. Upon this data, Dr. John Gottman built a research institute, a self-help book empire, a thriving therapeutic practice, and an esteemed academic name. His therapeutic superhero skill? Divorce Predictor.
“Is that like horse whisperer?” Tom asked as we found seats. We looked around, suddenly self-conscious. Our marriage seemed pretty healthy to me, aside from a short list of ongoing differences—we call them Fight A, Fight B, and Fight C—and the occasional argument about nothing, as in the car ride over. Generally we dwell in a playful, enriching, and loving union.
But just being at a “Making Marriage Work” lecture felt like wearing a name tag that said, “Hello! We’re Circling the Drain!” Of course the one couple we knew in the huge hall happened to be sitting just across the aisle, and looked equally busted when we said hi. “Dragged here, too, were you?” Tom joshed, socking the husband manfully on the shoulder. We all smiled, admitting it was the wives’ idea, but that both husbands were genuinely interested in what this Gottman had to say. Plus, the man told us, they had just received jarring news from the marriage front. “You remember our neighbors, the Smiths?” (Not really “the Smiths,” you understand.) We did—great people, very solid, together forever. “He had an affair. The marriage is done.”
The lights flickered and we stumbled back to our seats. The Smiths? I read my own thoughts in Tom’s expression: If it can happen to them, is anyone’s marriage safe? Could the Divorce Predictor have seen that one coming?
Couples once aired resentments—with foam baseball bats.
The good doctor spent the next two hours establishing that yeah…he probably could have. Gottman told his audience that four neon signs herald marital doom: criticism (“There is no such thing as constructive criticism”), defensiveness, the “shutting-out” Gottman calls stonewalling, and contempt. Of these, contempt—the act of relating to one’s partner from a position of superiority, whether by calling him an idiot or correcting her grammar—is the most destructive and the number-one predictor of divorce. Not only does contempt eat like sulfuric acid through a marriage, it’s physically destructive. Emerging research reveals that contempt among intimates measurably corrodes the recipient’s immune system. Couples who practice these sorts of marriages Gottman calls the Disasters.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Masters, who through a thousand positive moments build a culture within their marriage of appreciation and respect. They look for things to praise in their partner. They say, “Thanks for doing the dishes tonight,” and “You look so sexy in that color.”
It’s no great mystery how the Masters do this, Gottman explains; it’s Friendship 101. They ask their partner questions about their desires and dreams, then remember the answers. They learn to identify their partner’s bids for emotional connection, then respond in kind. Unlike the therapeutic modalities in vogue when Gottman started his research, where couples were urged to air their resentments with each other—sometimes employing foam baseball bats for emphasis—Gottman found that what makes marriage work is precisely the opposite. Relationships work to the extent that partners are gentle with each other.
Gottman spoke with candor and wit—the wise elder statesman in a city unusually crowded with relationship experts, sociologist Pepper Schwartz to sex columnist Dan Savage. Make no mistake, Gottman declared: Crappy interactions happen in all marriages, good and bad. Successful marriages are not bastions of romantic bliss; they’re pretty good partnerships peppered with regrettable moments. Indeed, 69 percent of the married couples he studied wrestled with the same problems the entire life of their marriage. Fight A, Fight B, and Fight C. The only difference was that the Masters dealt with them functionally and respectfully.
At the end Gottman opened the floor, and a man asked if there was a variable to predict good marriages. “There is,” Gottman said. “Men who are willing to accept influence from women.” From across the aisle my friend caught my eye. He means men who work up interest in a marriage lecture because they know it means something to their wives, I heard her thinking. Tom looked at me and dramatically rolled his eyes.
And took my hand.