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.”