A dissection of John Gottman's love lab.

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March 8 2010 10:01 AM

Can You Really Predict the Success of a Marriage in 15 Minutes?

An excerpt from Laurie Abraham's The Husbands and Wives Club.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

"My goal is to be like the guy who invented Velcro," marriage researcher John Gottman once told an interviewer. "Nobody remembers his name, but everybody uses Velcro." Gottman's own road to Velcro-level fame started with a 1998 article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. He and his colleagues at the University of Washington had videotaped newlywed couples discussing a contentious topic for 15 minutes to measure precisely how they fought over it: Did they criticize? Were they defensive? Did either spouse curl his or her lip in contempt? Then, three to six years later, Gottman's team checked on the same couples' marital status and announced that based on the coding of the tapes, they could predict with 83 percent accuracy which ones were divorced.

Soon reporters had dubbed Gottman's research facility the "love lab," and his powers of prognostication had increased: In another published report, he said he could pick out future divorcees 91 percent of the time based on coding a mere five-minutes of tape. Over the next decade, Gottman's narrow, bald head, fringed by a neat, gray beard and topped by a discreet yarmulke, began to appear everywhere—on 20/20 and The Today Show, in the New York Times Magazine and the Atlantic, and in hundreds of newspapers across the country. Malcolm Gladwell devoted most of a chapter to him in his huge best-seller Blink. In a 2007 survey asking psychotherapists to elect the 10 most influential members of their profession over the last quarter-century, Gottman was only one of four who made the cut who wasn't deceased. "Many in the field now believe that most of what we know about marriage and divorce comes from his work," states an article accompanying the Top 10 list.

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As Gottman's acclaim has grown, I've many times thought that if we were brave enough, all of us marrieds and, most importantly, would-be marrieds, would take a trip to the love lab. We'd sit facing each other, video running, pulse sensors attached to our fingertips, discuss a problem for 15 minutes or so, and come away knowing the awful or joyful truth. We'd know whether to marry or—no matter how good the relationship seemed at the present—whether to pull away and save ourselves (and any children, for God's sake) the future heartbreak. I imagined a chain of love labs around the country, scanning couples' marital chances as mammograms screen for breast cancer.

The Husbands and Wives Club by Laurie Abraham.

Then, while researching my book The Husbands and Wives Club, I looked into Gottman's research and saw that there were reasons other than a silly attachment to romance to think twice before trusting his formula—or anyone else's—to predict the outcome of your marriage. Gottman's "predictions" are not exactly what most of us think of as real predictions. And the way he reports them in all likelihood makes them seem much more robust than they really are.

Undeniably, Gottman has made enormous contributions to the study of marriage. Earlier sociologists focused on mate selection: the personality characteristics of who married whom, and from where, which pairs flourished (or not). But this began to seem limited. As family therapy leader Nathan Ackerman famously put it, "two neurotics can be happily married." To back up the idea that it was the relationship that mattered, it was necessary to step into the flow, or muddle, of couples interaction—and Gottman embraced that task wholeheartedly.

When he and a handful of other research teams began videotaping couples in conflict in the 1970s, the approach was revolutionary. Instead of just asking people how they argued or resolved disputes, researchers could see and hear them in action. A math major at MIT before he switched to psychology, Gottman developed a coding system that not only tracked the content of speech but the emotional messages that spouses send with minute changes in expressions, vocal tone, and body language. Using facial recognition systems, Gottman's code accounts for the fact that, for instance, in "coy, playful, or flirtatious interactions," the lips are often turned down. "It looks like the person is working hard not to smile," he writes. Conversely, "many 'smiles' involve upturned corners of the mouth but are often indices of negative affect." Such meticulous parsing allowed Gottman to coin the phrase "negative affect reciprocity," because he saw, frame by frame, the vicious emotional circles that characterize clashing spouses.

Gottman would not have become a household name, however, without his storied powers for predicting divorce. "He's gotten so good at thin-slicing marriages," Malcolm Gladwell enthused in Blink, "that he says he can be at a restaurant and eavesdrop on the couple one table over and get a pretty good sense of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and dividing up custody of the children."

So what does it mean to predict divorce? For the 1998 study, which focused on videotapes of 57 newlywed couples, I assumed that Gottman had, in the first instance, sorted them into three groups—will divorce, will be happy, will be unhappy but still married—based on the conflict-variables he believed distinguished marriages that last from those that don't (contempt, little positive affect, elevated male heart rate, etc.). Then, at six years, he'd checked to see how right, or wrong, his predictions had been. That isn't how it worked. He knew the marital status of his subjects at six years, and he fed that information into a computer along with the communication patterns turned up on the videos. Then he asked the computer, in effect: Create an equation that maximizes the ability of my chosen variables to distinguish among the divorced, happy, and unhappy.

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