Love in the Age of Big Data

Scientists believe they've discovered a simple formula for happy relationships. Reader, I tried it.
Story by Eve Fairbanks
Art by Jun Cen

The Science Of Love In The 21st Century

love machine

Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called "limerence." This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can't-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman's wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who'd placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John's humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.

They talked avidly; it felt as if they'd known each other forever. Over the following months they drew closer and closer, proceeding through subsequent stages of building a fulfilling love relationship. John learned about the unhappy home life growing up in Michigan that had driven Julie to spend so much time in the forest by herself, and Julie learned about John's desire to understand deeply earth's biggest mysteries, like the nature of time. Although they were afraid—they'd both been divorced before—they confided their admiration for each other, John's for the courage Julie showed in her therapy practice by helping the “sickest of the sickest,” schizophrenics and Vietnam veterans on Skid Row, and Julie's for John's absurdist sense of humor. They kayaked together. They joined a synagogue. They married and had a daughter, fulfilling one of John's longtime dreams, and bought a house on a forested island three hours north of Seattle, fulfilling a dream of Julie's. They fought. They attended couples therapy. Through their conflict they came to love each other more.

Twenty-nine years after that first date, John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman stood on a black stage in a ballroom of the Seattle Sheraton in front of about 250 other couples, young and old, straight and gay. The intense intimacy of their relationship was on full display: They finished each other's sentences, bantered with each other and talked candidly about how their struggles had made them stronger. Julie wept. John held Julie, caressing her hair. The rest of us, seated in chairs that had been hooked together in sets of twos, watched them with yearning.

We'd come to see the Gottmans because the pair has spent the last 20 years refining a science-based method to build a beautiful love partnership yourself. They reveal it over a two-day, $750-per-pair workshop called "The Art and Science of Love." “It turns out Tolstoy was wrong," John told the crowd in an opening lecture. "All happy relationships are similar and all unhappy relationships are also similar. … Is there a secret? It turns out, empirically, yes, there is a secret."

Over decades, John has observed more than 3,000 couples longitudinally, discovering patterns of argument and subtle behaviors that can predict whether a couple would be happily partnered years later or unhappy or divorced. He has won awards from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Council of Family Relations and has become the subject of increasing public fascination. He went on Oprah and the “Today” show. A book he co-authored that summarizes his findings, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is a New York Times best-seller.

His work took off because the consistency of his predictions is astonishing. One 1992 experiment found that certain indicators in how couples talked about their relationship could forecast–with 94 percent accuracy–which pairs would stay together. This was magic–a virtually foolproof way of distinguishing toxic partnerships from healthy ones even before the couples knew themselves–but it was also science, so it appealed to our contemporary desire to use empirical data to better our lives. Walk by any newsstand, or trawl the Internet for three minutes, and you’ll find data-driven methods to improve everything we do. “Is This the Ultimate Healthy Meal?” “The Best Workout Ever, According to Science.”

You might expect love to be the last frontier breached by data. It is the Antarctic of the human experience, richly feeding the oceans of our emotions, yet somehow remaining elusive and unknown. Philosophers have argued over it for millennia without arriving at a satisfactory definition. Poets like Erich Fried capture its strange mix of pleasure and pain, the sense of its essential ungovernability: “It is foolish, says caution / It is impossible, says experience / It is what it is, says love.”

I first encountered Gottman's research last year in an Atlantic article called "Masters of Love." It went viral; my own friends posted it on Facebook saying, "This is what it comes down to.” Finally, love had been harnessed in the laboratory, seen, understood and broken into building blocks we could all apply to our lives.

The article proposes a recipe for becoming a love “master” instead of a love “disaster” by responding the right way to what Gottman calls your partner's "bids for connection.” A “bid” is when your lover points out your kitchen window and marvels, "Look at that beautiful bird outside!" You could go "Wow!” and get binoculars (an active “turn-towards”); mumble “Huh," and keep reading your newspaper (a passive reaction, less good); or say, "I'm sick of your fucking birds. What about the broken garage door?" Gottman found that masters turn towards their partners’ bids 87 percent of the time. Love, he concluded, comes down to "a habit of mind.”

And habits of mind take work to instill. Everyone at the workshop was given a kit in a box with a handle. Inside were decks of cards proposing questions to help us learn about our partners (“how are you feeling now about being a mother?”) or offering ways to connect erotically (“when you return home tonight, greet each other with a kiss that lasts at least six seconds”). A manual provided us with a vocabulary to demystify and contain some of the scary things that go on in love: fights are "regrettable incidents," the things that make us feel good together are our “rituals of connection,” the dark inner chasms that regrettable incidents seem to reveal are our "enduring vulnerabilities."

One of the Gottmans’ employees, Kendra Han, estimated that a quarter of the couples in attendance were the kind of ickily self-aware duos who try this kind of thing for "fun and enrichment" while the majority were in some state of "relational distress." The prevailing mood was a mix of hope and fragility. "This is already not going well," I overheard one woman say, laughing a little. "My husband’s late.”

As I watched the Gottmans from my own seat two rows from the stage, I felt anxious, too. I had come with my own love problem to solve.

Some traditional Arab cultures believed that when you fall in love, your lover steals your liver. The ancient Chinese told their children that love could take out your heart. Romantic love, in older human cultures, was often something dark. It involved physical dissolution, the sense of falling apart. It made us act irrationally and tore a hole into the neatly woven fabric of our lives, beckoning us to step through it into a land of terrors. “You get lots of stories of getting tricked,” William Jankowiak, an anthropologist who has extensively studied love in folktales, told me.

That’s why, for much of human history, the marriage historian Stephanie Coontz writes, people thought lifelong partnership was “too important” to be left up to love. Marriage was a business contract. Families used it to acquire lands, to create stable legacies on which their next generations could build. Love resisted these kinds of reasoned considerations.

That all began to change in the West in the 1700s. The rise of wage labor freed young people from their families and gave them more autonomy to decide whom to marry. The Enlightenment put freedom of choice into vogue. The word “spinster” emerged, a pathetic figure compared to blissful women in love.

John began to feel as if he could eavesdrop on a couple sitting across from him in a restaurant and get a pretty good sense of their chances of divorce.

Simon May, a British philosopher who has studied the development of beliefs about love over two millennia of Western culture, suggests that we’ve placed vastly more importance on finding love since the retreat of Christianity and the rise of relativism. "Human love," he writes in his magisterial Love: A History, "is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment." The grounding we used to find in devotion to ideals like nationalism or communism, or in our faith in an ever-caring Shepherd, we now seek from individual, fickle human beings.

After I read May’s theory that love “is now the West’s undeclared religion,” I began to see evidence of it everywhere. “When you get down to it … [love is] the only purpose grand enough for a human life,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees. At funerals, we praise the way the deceased person loved as the ultimate sign that his life had meaning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Supreme Court opinion legalizing gay marriage nationally, identified marriage as the ultimate wellspring of all the other essential human joys, from “expression” to “spirituality,” while Sheryl Sandberg counsels young women that their choice of a mate is the most important decision of their lives. According to May, we no longer view love as "the rarest of exceptions," as older cultures did, "but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it."

These expectations are crazy-making, and it’s no wonder scientists have jumped in to try to save us. In the 1930s, sociologists began to generate charts to try to predict what kinds of love marriages would last a lifetime. You could take your own personality traits—loves sewing circles?—and plot them against your beau’s to forecast the happiness and stability of your match. 1

1 One of the first of these charts, created by Ernest Burgess in a book called Predicting Success or Failure in Marriage, borrowed the variables from studies on whether criminals relapsed after being let out of prison.

Starting the ’70s, with divorce on the rise, social psychologists got into the mix. Recognizing the apparently opaque character of marital happiness but optimistic about science’s capacity to investigate it, they pioneered a huge array of inventive techniques to study what things seemed to make marriages succeed or fail. They had partners write down everything they hated or loved about each other and then studied how close the pair subsequently sat together on a couch. They even generated fights, instructing couples to argue over how to pack the car for a vacation while each partner twiddled dials under the laboratory table assessing their mate’s helpfulness. One study showed that couples who did novel things together fared better; another revealed that intense emotions, once believed to be a sign of immaturity in love, could be worked with to create very deep intimacy. Given how central our love partner had become to our well-being—research had begun to show a good marriage was more predictive of long-term health than eating right or not smoking—Sue Johnson of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute told me she felt like she was “in the most exciting revolution that’s happened in the 20th century for human beings.”

“Imagine proving all those poets and philosophers from way back wrong!” she said. “Finally, we can make sense of love and actually shape it with deliberation.”

♦ ♦ ♦

One recent afternoon, the Gottmans met me in their downtown Seattle office to talk about John’s research and how they turned it into the Gottman Method. Julie was wearing a turqoise shirt and big earrings, her thick black curls streaked with a Susan Sontag ribbon of white. John, smaller and eagle-nosed, wore a black jacket and a yarmulke over a fringe of white hair. He'd brought his omnipresent scratch pad with him.

"A few years after we'd married,” John began, “I wanted to leave for Chicago to take a job there. But Julie felt Chicago was too flat. And then we were in that canoe—"

Julie interrupted him sharply. "Well, that came a bit later," she said. "The real story here is we decided to offer a parenting support group. Remember that?"

"Oh, yeah," John deferred. "I forgot about that."

Seeing the Gottmans' marital interaction up close is almost alarming at first. Most couples tone down the perpetual spats, adjustments, sideways glances and hopeful asides that constitute one-on-one intimacy when they're in public. The Gottmans don't. Sitting across from them at a conference table, you feel as though you’ve come upon them tucked into bed, working it out with each other. They exchange constant meaningful looks. They interrupt each other, or Julie mostly interrupts John, correcting his behavior and memory. John accepts it. They use couples-therapy language. ("Boundaries!" Julie reminds John, when he starts speaking about his ex-wife.) They openly refer to deep wounds in their relationship. They also snuggle. John puts his arm around Julie, she arches into him and they wrinkle their noses at each other. In my presence, Julie wept twice, once recounting a time John had made her feel like a bad mother and once when John said she had been “the answer to my prayers.”

They started their parenting support group in 1989–just 10 couples, once a week, talking about the ups and downs of having children at the Seattle Jewish Community Center. John approached it like a lab. “He was all about observing and learning,” Julie said. “And I would jump in and talk about their emotions, looking for ways to try to help these parents. We'd have these great discussions afterwards and laugh about it. 'Why are you trying to help these people?' John would say. And I'd say, 'Honey, why are you not trying to help?'"

When John got his start researching couples in the mid-1970s, he was the one who needed help. He’d grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey a diminutive nerd with few friends. As an adult, his love life felt perpetually unstable and unhappy. He found it hard to be satisfied with the woman he was with. In one two-year relationship, he and a girlfriend argued so much he ended up with stress-induced pneumonia.

Psychology, which he studied at the University of Wisconsin, gave him a way to use his problem-solving mind to attack the question of his own loneliness. Like a science-fiction android who pins electrodes on his human subjects to try to figure out where their emotions come from, John set about creating experiments that were as broad as possible: What does a good relationship look like? What does it feel like to be in it?

His career took off when he met a psychologist named Robert Levenson. Each man turned out to be exactly what the other had needed. Levenson was investigating the remarkable variance in how different people react to stress by testing their heart rates and sweat-gland activity after receiving a jolt. By teaming up with John, he says he finally felt as if he was working on something more “personally relevant and emotionally rich” than administering electric shocks. Meanwhile, by joining with Levenson, John thought he might uncover a way to measure marital happiness that was more “real” than people’s self-reporting on surveys.

Their collaboration led John to create an actual mock apartment where couples could do “ordinary” things like cook and watch TV together. “It was just like being at a bed and breakfast,” he said, “except you were hooked up to electrodes … and there were surveillance cameras hanging from the ceiling.” Then, he harnessed the emerging power of computers to analyze a vast amount of data from the interactions. Professionals trained in interpreting facial expressions evaluated hours of video, rating the couples for emotions like delight, disgust and fear; assistants coded questionnaires the partners filled out about their relationship history for positive and negative feelings; and machines took constant measures of the couples’ heart rates and vascular tone while they flirted and fought.

Years afterwards, the psychologists followed up to see which couples were happy and which had split up. They plugged that information into a computer, along with all the data they’d previously gathered, and asked the machine to create equations that associated certain behaviors and physiology with long-term happiness. What emerged were fascinating and often surprising observations on lasting love. They found that couples that stay happy used a lot of “we,” whereas couples that turned out unhappy used “I,” “me” and “mine.” They also discovered that when partners with a good long-term outlook argued, they somehow managed to maintain a ratio of five positive comments to one negative one. “At the time, everybody was enamored with this idea that romantic relationships were full of fireworks,” Levenson remembered. “Well, that was not the finding. It is the capacity of couples to calm down, to soothe, to sort of reduce the level of arousal for each other, that is the most important factor in predicting whether the marriage will last.”

In the beginning, the two men’s techniques were viewed as dangerously iconoclastic. “When Bob and I were assistant professors getting evaluated for tenure our committee said, ‘Look, you guys are crazy. We can’t predict one person’s behavior. How are we going to predict two people’s behavior? You’ll never find anything. You’ll never get a grant,’” John recalled. But as the astoundingly robust predictions started rolling in, all that changed. John got elected to chair the family psychology research unit of the American Psychological Association. The New York Times profiled his findings. Where John had once felt hopelessly bewildered by love, he began to feel as if he could eavesdrop on a couple sitting across from him in a restaurant and get a pretty good sense of their chances of divorce.

“John had these brilliant insights,” Julie told me, “but nothing was being done with them.”

Unlike John, Julie’s work as a psychologist had centered on therapeutic interventions. The daughter of a severely emotionally unstable mother, Julie started comforting others early. “In high school, I didn’t have friends,” she said. “I had a caseload.”

She specialized in individual and group therapy, not couples therapy, but she was fascinated by her husband’s research. She also knew that the majority of people who seek individual therapy want help with their relationships. From her divorce, she was familiar with the anguish produced by difficult love. She left that marriage with nothing but a Tibetan prayer rug, a sleeping bag and a cat.

Canoeing together on the Salish Sea outside Seattle, Julie remembers saying to John, “Why don’t we try to help couples with what you know?” They spent the next year creating a master theory of good relationships based on John’s research. He sat in his red chair, she sat on an ottoman. “We argued a lot,” John remembered.

“Oh, God, we argued a lot,” Julie said.

In the beginning, John was hesitant to embrace some of the ideas about love that Julie had picked up from her decades of practice as a therapist. “I thought, if there wasn’t solid evidence, we wouldn’t put it into the theory,” he recalled. Always formula-driven, he imagined the Gottman Method would comprise a rigid set of 14 well-structured sessions. Julie wanted a looser set of guidelines. “I was tearing my hair out because I had worked with people for 20, 25 years, and I knew that there’s huge variation in how people react to therapy,” she said. She threw John a teasing smile. “He had to learn how to respect my knowledge. Finally.”

They imagined that a happy relationship was built consecutively in seven layers. The foundation was a strong friendship, based on John’s laboratory findings that couples who spoke more fluidly and in more detail about each other and their pasts were more likely to stay together. Then came sharing admiration, “turning towards” each others’ bids and developing positive feelings about the coupling. Once that had all clicked into place, a pair could proceed through learning to manage their fights with, among other techniques, a process they dubbed “dreams within conflict,” whereby people try to see the positive dream inside what looks like a partner’s negative position. At the top–the pinnacle of a great relationship–came helping each others' dreams come true and building a shared sense of purpose, like volunteering or traveling the world.

The “dreams with conflict” technique was inspired by the Gottmans’ own marital strife. One fight involved Julie’s wish, for her 50th birthday, to climb above Mount Everest’s base camp with 10 female friends. “John gets altitude sick on a ladder,” Julie said. He didn’t want her to go. In bed at night, he’d pepper her with questions: “What if you get caught in a blizzard? What if you fall in a glacier? What if you get altitude sick?”

“What if you get hit by a bus?” she’d reply.

Julie invited a sherpa to their house to give a presentation on the trip. The sherpa stood in the living room, 6 feet tall, dark and sexy, and showed slides of fabulous rope bridges snaking over river chasms as her friends ooh-ed and aah-ed. Afterwards, Julie asked John what he thought of the evening. “I don’t trust that sherpa. I think he just wants to have sex with you 10 women,” John recalled saying. “I was right about that, by the way.” But he came to realize what seemed like Julie’s peculiar urge to “sleep on rocks where there’s no air” stemmed from her yearning for far-flung adventure born from her difficult childhood.

They also fought over whether to buy a second home. It was a priority for Julie to return to living in the forest, her childhood safe space. John initially refused. Over many “dreams within conflict” discussions, they discovered that John’s intransigence came from his own upbringing. His father, a rabbi, fled Vienna shortly before World War Two with “only some sugar and a lemon.” He counseled his son about the power of feeling free of possessions, including real estate, saying, “The only possessions you can count on are the ones inside your mind.”

Finally, after a year of bickering and breakthroughs, the Gottmans felt as if they’d perfected their method, and they took on a partner to help them turn it into a business. At first, they recruited participants to their workshops by posting fliers and placing pamphlets in therapists’ waiting rooms. But within a few years, such aggressive flogging wasn’t needed anymore. Crowds flocked to the workshops and, later, to the Gottmans’ online store, which offers products like a board game that takes you and your partner, represented by little plastic pieces, on a journey across painted cardboard through the steps to building a fulfilling relationship.

“There’s so much more of a burden placed on marriage now to be your social support system,” Julie reflected. “People turned out to be starving for this knowledge.”

I could relate. I met my boyfriend in 2009 at a dinner party I'd thrown to impress somebody else. He came in late, beautiful in his crisp work clothes. The chemistry was immediate. Over a series of dates, I learned he was sweet and giving, with strong ethics and a fascinating mind. We lived on separate sides of the country where we resided at the time, and we had heady months of meeting in romantic towns in the middle, eating figs and cherries we bought straight off of farms, learning about ourselves as we were reflected in each other. Much of the time, I think we made each other feel more capable, more hopeful for the future. But there were also times when we made each other feel more confused than we'd ever been in our lives. The desire to love each other was there, and yet it was with exasperation that we recognized we each sometimes didn't feel loved. What were we doing wrong? It didn’t seem clear.

During a difficult period this year, lingering at my laptop deep into the night, I found myself clicking on articles that promised to turn love into a formula. “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years.” “Ten Ways to Make Your Marriage Divorce-Proof.” “Must-Know Guidelines for Dating an ISTJ.” (Yes, I was desperate.) Like many people, I was particularly fascinated by a story in The New York Times called "To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This." Based on work by Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University, the article proposed that love could be established if a pair of random people asked each other a specific set of 36 increasingly intimate questions ("Would you like to be famous? In what way?") and then silently stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Two strangers paired for Aron's study actually ended up married six months later. It seemed to prove that love is a masterable technique rather than an uncontrollable force that often gives us pain. And people went wild for it. The article was viewed by more than 8 million people. Within weeks, Apple's App Store unveiled eight different apps based on it, one titled simply, “Fall in Love.”

And yet as fervently as I hoped one of these recipes would make my confused love life resolve itself, deep down I wasn’t sure love could or should be built out of a manual, like something you assemble from IKEA. We live in an age that generally denies the possibility of the unpredictable. My and all my friends’ unspoken goal is to live flawlessly plotted lives based on perfect self-knowledge. We have to-do lists and bucket lists and two-year, five-year and 20-year plans created with the help of therapists. One of my friends has jiggered his iPhone to blink him reminders of his “core values” all day long, so he won’t even briefly swerve astray.

For me, though, love has been the thing that has broken me out of this dreary quest for perfection. We can only consciously construct what we can already imagine, which is very little. When I was 19 and living in Belgium, I happened to fall in love with a completely inappropriate man, a 33-year-old German pastor who wore white cigarette jeans like a ’70s sitcom hustler and had spent his twenties bicycling around Europe. I never could have dreamed him up with the help of a therapist. That’s what made loving him so life-altering. He was wild, irreverent, given to reading the Song of Solomon in bed and playing hooky from his internship at a theological seminary to take the train to a town he’d never heard of–in other words, nothing like the driven, well-scheduled East Coasters I’d grown up with. And he touched those dormant qualities in myself. At the time, I wrote in a journal that being loved by him felt as if I’d been living in only three cramped rooms of the mansion that was my spirit, and then he came in with a big flashlight and led me by the hand through a warren of never-seen halls, laughing and tearing the sheets off the furniture while I trailed behind him, mouth agape.

Of course, his alluring differences also bashed painfully up against my longing for a partner with whom I felt comfortable all the time. He was too old, he was too odd, he smoked too much; I agonized over the thought of introducing him to my parents. I felt at the time that forcing our relationship to “work” according to some norm would shatter it; it only worked insofar as it was broken, a queer, misshapen thing that just happened to rest beautifully atop the equally queer, misshapen circumstances that constituted our lives at 19 and 33.

Likewise, surfing the web for the solution that would bring my more recent relationship to heel, I feared we couldn’t make it conform to an ideal template. A recent Quartz article insists that when choosing a life partner, we have to search for the right “eating companion for about 20,000 meals,” “travel companion for about 100 vacations,” “parenting partner” and “career therapist”–all while admitting that contemplating such a project “is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is.” The author assures you, though, that using a spreadsheet will help you feel as if it’s “fully in your control.” I guess this is supposed to be empowering; I suspect it actually puts relationships under a kind of pressure beneath which many would crumble. My boyfriend and I came from very different countries, from different kinds of families. That we managed to love each other at all was already a miracle.

When we imagine thatevery human life and every complex love can be molded to fit a scientifically derived ideal, we cover our eyes to the realities of circumstance–and shame people who can’t manage to twist their circumstances to that ideal. Simon May, the philosopher who writes on love, told me that he’s known people who were accused of basic psychological failings when they couldn’t make their relationships work out. “But we have to take into account all the literature on unhappy love,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just people getting it wrong or not trying hard enough.” He called love an “earthy emotion” that often provokes restless feelings like tension and guilt, and suggested the assumption that every love affair can be managed denies the full humanity of our partners, their own “inscrutable and uncontrollable” natures. They aren’t things we can program for maximum impact like a FitBit.

As I dug a little deeper into the work behind the love articles, I found that some of the people responsible for the science felt it held fewer definitive answers than we want to believe. One of them was Arthur Aron, the Stony Brook research psychologist whose work the Times glossed in “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” He was working at his second home in California when I called him. He laughed when I mentioned the Times story. He’d designed the 36 questions, he said, to artificially “create closeness” in a laboratory setting between same-sex heterosexual strangers, not lovers. One of his grad students had also tried the method on some heterosexual opposite-sex pairs, and one pair had, funny enough, fallen in love, but the lab hadn’t followed up with the others.

Aron has studied love in many other experiments, and he’s been struck by how contextual factors influence relationships. “Unfortunately the single biggest [factor], if you look across the world, is stress,” he said. “If you’re very poor, if you’re in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it’s hard for any relationship to work out very well. That’s not one we can do much about as individuals.”

Aron also pointed out that a lot of the science on happy love was based on averages, creating a norm away from which couples can stray very, very far and still be happy. Take a recent study claiming the ideal age to marry is between 25 and 34. The study reflects the center hump of a scattered group of dots representing pairs older and younger that all work in their own way. And the reporting on it outrageously inverts causation. The study’s authors mused that people who married younger might have been less settled, and those who waited until later might have been be more “congenitally cantankerous,” upping their divorce rates. That doesn’t mean arbitrarily marrying in your late twenties would do anything whatsoever to improve your chances. And yet, I still read a story on Vox headlined, “Want to Avoid Divorce? Here’s the Best Age to Get Married.”

John Gottman designed his experiments to allow numerous variables to emerge, creating a much richer formula. But his findings were limited by the pool from which he drew his test subjects, communities in Illinois, Washington, Indiana and the San Francisco Bay Area with their own local habits. “There’s this sort of big mystery at the heart of things,” another psychologist told me.

That psychologist was Robert Levenson–the same man with whom John had pioneered his work. I reached him on the phone at Berkeley, where he now teaches. He and John are still close, and Levenson praised John’s “fierce interest” in what makes marriages last. “It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, after our research, he spent a significant part of his life working on interventions,” Levenson reflected.

But he wasn’t so sure the actions he and John had observed happy couples performing could be turned into a do-it-at-home blueprint. “We actually don’t know what got the happy couples to that point,” he said. What makes two human beings want to turn towards each others’ bids 87 percent of the time, give a shit about the fragile dreams hiding behind each others’ most intransigent and frustrating opinions and have that magical effect on each other like a powerful chemical tranquilizer in the first place? This, he said, still “requires scientific study.”

Kendra Han, the workshop employee, admitted she doesn’t follow up after couples leave the conference to see whether the method made them happier. Two studies conducted by the Gottmans show that the method really can move people along a happiness spectrum: A 2000 intervention given to already-healthy couples expecting a child revealed that it helped them weather the difficulties of becoming parents, and a 2013 Journal of Family Therapy study of 80 couples showed that most maintained gains in marital satisfaction a year after “The Art and Science of Love” workshop.

This is less definitive than the promise to transform disasters into masters, though, and the method wasn’t directly compared to other therapies. Robert Levenson told me couples-therapy purveyors can be reluctant to do comparative studies, and gave a hypothetical example of why based on the finding that happy couples use "we" a lot.

“What if I have the Levenson ‘We’ Therapy, where people come to my ‘We’ training and learn how to use ‘We'?" he asked me. "Then I do a study and compare it with the Gottman approach and it turns out the Gottman approach does much better. But what about my ‘We’ building and my ‘We’ weekends and my ‘We Retreat’ at Club Med?”

♦ ♦ ♦

Back at the Gottman Method workshop, the 500 of us periodically broke out into pairs for exercises: 20 minutes to practice showing each other admiration, 30 to try to work through a serious problem that triggered our "enduring vulnerabilities.” There were tip sheets to draw out of our kits: a master list of 100 adjectives to choose from when praising our partners—brave, reliable, hot—and a collection of lines to use when we’re overwhelmed during arguments. I’m sorry, but I’m feeling flooded. Can we take 20?

I’d come in skeptical. But not two hours into the exercises, I found myself overwhelmed by emotion. All of the concepts were just abstract enough to find a specific analogue in my relationship. As I recognized my boyfriend’s particular lovely qualities in the list of adjectives, I got a flush of warm and peaceful feelings, the kind John’s laboratory research determined were necessary to support the calm physiology that underpins lasting love. A “love map” exercise got me to contemplate the gaps in our friendship and ways to fill them. The dreams-within-conflict exercise helped me understand the hopes for being a good dad that my boyfriend had vested in the ways he wanted to raise our future children.

In their lectures, the Gottmans performed the same quirky, vulnerable marital dynamic that I observed in my interview. In one memorable hour, they role-played a past “regrettable incident,” first handling it in a bad way, then in a good way. As we all watched, John harshly criticized Julie for being too worried about their daughter’s health. Julie slumped over the podium and actually cried. Then he started over with empathy, gently teasing out the issue from her personal history–the polio she contracted as a child due to her parents’ neglect. As we saw the change on Julie's face, we all drew a breath. Suddenly, altering the trajectory of those terrible fights, the ones that can feel as though they're breaking our partnerships apart, seemed possible. We saw it happen.

It’s not hard to find people who vow that the Gottman Method completely transformed their relationships. Last month, I called one of the thousands of couples-therapy practices that use the Gottman Method, BestMarriages in southern British Columbia, and asked for referrals to couples who were willing to talk. Several pairs emailed me, eagerly requesting to be interviewed.

There’s another way to tell the story of how John and Julie fell in love, one that brings to the fore the awesome workings of destiny.

Bonnie, 49, told me that she and her husband Brian, “definitely a disaster couple,” were going to end their union, but a year of biweekly counseling in the Gottman Method “completely turned things around.” Donald, 50, said he’d also given up on his 24-year marriage to Donna. There had been affairs; the two had drifted apart.

But encountering the Gottmans’ lingo—the “enduring vulnerabilities,” the “rituals of connection,” the “turning towards”—suddenly put meaning to the language-less, mysterious eddy of emotions that had been the relationship. It gave them things to do. Donald started sending Donna text messages every afternoon: “How was your day?” When he had a difficult encounter with a testy colleague, Donna shared her admiration for him, telling him how proud she was of him for handling it well. When Donna had a cold and snored, the “old Don,” she said, would have roused her by “huffing and puffing with annoyance.” Instead, he employed the Gottmans’ patented “softened start-up,” waking her gently, expressing concern for her sore throat, and later sending her a note from work thanking her for rolling over to the other side of the bed.

Talking to them by video Skype, I never would have known the two had struggled. They cuddled up to one another in the frame and giggled like smitten high-schoolers as they retold the story of how they met.

“We spotted each other,” Donna grinned, sticking her tongue out at Don.

“She was on a balcony,” Donald said, smiling back. “It was like Romeo and Juliet.”

I also got to watch Julie counsel a couple, Shantel and Paul, using the Gottman Method. The pair comes from a poorer neighborhood in Seattle, and they got free therapy in 2007 in exchange for agreeing to be filmed to help train other Gottman Method counselors. I’d intended to dip in just for a few minutes to get a sense of how Julie worked. But I ended up viewing six hours of the counseling in one afternoon, transfixed. Though Paul and Shantel could hardly have seemed less like me and my partner in their particulars–they had children; a low ebb in their relationship occurred after Paul got shot–so much of the by-turns-playful-and-reproachful dance that they did with each other on Julie’s couch reminded me of my own relationships: the flirty exchanges, the deep concern for each other, the subtle digs at each others’ flaws, the sudden flares of anger as they touched each other on open wounds. Shantel wept as she recounted how Paul criticized her; Paul cried himself as he recalled being abandoned by his godmother and how he fears Shantel’s rejection.

I called Shantel in late July. Like the other couples I spoke to, she reckoned the Gottman Method “kept us married.” Since they’d met as young teens, she and Paul had basically been each other’s only ports in an incredibly stormy world. In his teens, Paul got involved in the drug trade; later, the pair got caught up in the predatory lending crisis and briefly became homeless. Add to that the fact that they had not selected each other to ride out this turmoil on the basis of a problem-solving-compatibility survey but on love, which often, like a trickster determined to upend our tidy plans, draws opposites together and, by reminding us of our emotionally fraught childhood bonds with our parents, brutally reveals just how vulnerable and childlike we really still are. Add to that the fact that our culture teaches us to expect love to “feel right,” to feel like a peaceful resolution rather than an adventure, to feel as calm as faith.

“Every time we got into a huge argument, we thought it must not be ‘meant to be,’” Shantel said. Julie’s techniques gave them a way to navigate the astounding complexity that is a marriage based on love. “One of the biggest things is being able to notice when we are ‘flooded’ and when we are at a place we can’t even engage and giving each other that space,” she told me. “We love telling each other when we’re ‘turning towards’ each other. ‘Hey, I’m making an attempt here to turn towards you. What I did was wrong. It was unfair.’ And the other person is receptive to that because we both have an understanding of what it means.”

In private, the Gottmans are much more nuanced on the impossibility of healing some relationships than they are in public. “Sometimes, really, people’s dreams don’t mesh,” John reflected. “There are all kinds of reasons why therapy can fail.” I got the sense they deeply care about couples in pain—they asked me several times about my own relationship. Their promise that mastering love is possible is, in part, an effort to comfort couples enmeshed in terrifying complexity. “Even if you can give somebody one little nugget of something they can take in, it’s helpful,” Julie said.

I still don’t quite know what’s going to happen with my relationship. But I left the workshop wanting to try the Gottmans’ techniques. They brought to mind a line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. ... Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.” The new love science may be just a string in the increasingly huge and windy maze that is contemporary love, no more absolute than all the other ways of thinking about love we’ve invented over 50,000 years—but we need that string.

Before I left Seattle, the Gottmans invited me out to their home on Orcas, the forested island off the northwest Washington coast. A giant silver sculpture of a heart invites visitors down a steep, wooded path towards the sea. The house’s interior is a wondrous world unto itself: wood carvings, ochre-and-sienna Native American-inspired throw blankets, shelves and shelves of books, a wooden dining-room table painted with playful injunctions. Enjoy the fruits of your labors. Open your mind. Seek knowledge. Seize the day. Cherish the night.

“It’s mostly Julie,” John said proudly as we tucked our feet into sheepskin slippers. “She’s a frustrated architect.” He stopped in front of a huge oil portrait just off the foyer depicting the two Gottmans together, smiling and leaning into each other. A friend had painted it. “I love this because it really captures our relationship,” he said. He paused for a moment before the painting as if to take it in anew.

Settling into their brown couches, I asked John and Julie if they felt the pain depicted in the millennia of literature on love, the ups and downs and the sense of bewilderment we now try to manage, was somehow necessary, or if better science could increase our skill at love such that we wouldn’t have to go through such torment anymore.

Both fell silent for 20 seconds. “I think the pain has to do with balance, and how difficult it is to balance between attending to your partner’s needs and staying true to who you are,” Julie said.

“I have a different answer,” John said. “I don’t think it’s necessary. When you haven’t been able to build trust, there’s the constant sense that this person isn’t there for you. They’re there for themselves but not for you. But we now know that there are really systematic processes through which people build trust and commitment.” Recently, he’d been working on the mathematics of building trust in relationships based on John Nash’s concept of the cooperative equilibrium, where two players in a game seek the best possible outcome for both of them.

But he also acknowledged that his painful younger relationships were steps on the path to Julie, showing him what he really wanted and how he needed to change. Julie said the same of her first marriage.

If everybody involved had known then what you know now about how to build a good relationship, I asked, could you have made your earlier marriages work?

“No,” Julie said.

“I don’t think so,” John said.

There’s another way to tell the story of how John and Julie fell in love, one that brings to the fore not the scientifically based steps by which they built their coupledom but rather the awesome workings of destiny. I got the sense this story was more important to them than the other one. Revealing it, they curled closer together on the couch, Julie nestling her head into the crook of John’s neck, John massaging her leg.

Two years before she met John, Julie said, she’d had a vision of the man she would spend her life with. Her vision had shown the man from behind. When John got up from the table to pay the bill on their first date at the Pony Expresso, and turned around, she felt a shock so sudden it left her trembling: It was him, the man from her vision. Later, she came to believe fate had brought them together for the higher purpose of helping couples: “I see our predestiny, the sacred holiness, as to do this little tiny bit of healing as tikkun olam”–Jews’ duty to repair the world.

Julie’s scientist brain knows that feelings of intense attraction come down to hormones and pheromones, but, she said, “I don’t know how to put that together with the fact that I had this vision of him.”

Perhaps, someday, a scientifically observable process will allow us to understand exactly what it is, that sense of mysterious destiny we can find in other people, not created but seemingly sent from on high. But is that a world in which we’d actually want to live?

John smiled as he recounted the puzzling sensation he experienced that evening in the Pony Expresso, similar to Julie’s. He’d been unhappy for decades. In the months before that encounter, he said he’d gone on 60 dates, trying to establish a “database” of women to choose from. And then he met Julie and felt unaccountably whole. “I’ve never felt alone since,” he said.

“Oh, sweetie,” Julie murmured. “You’re going to make me cry.”

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Story - Eve Fairbanks
Eve, a writer living in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.
Art - Jun Cen
Jun is a New York based award-winning Chinese illustrator whose works have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Verge.
Development - Dan McCarey
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