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Have Scientists Found a Formula for LOVE?

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.