Have Scientists Found a Formula for LOVE?

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.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Have Scientists Found a Formula for LOVE?

About The Author
- LOVE TV’s mission is to make LOVE as artistic and popular in TV media as food is today.