Love in the Age of Big Data
Scientists believe they’ve discovered a simple formula for happy relationships. Reader, I tried it.
The Science Of Love In The 21st Century
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.