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Have Scientists Found a Formula for LOVE?

Talking to them by video Skype, I never would have known the two had struggled. They cuddled up to one another in the frame and giggled like smitten high-schoolers as they retold the story of how they met.

“We spotted each other,” Donna grinned, sticking her tongue out at Don.

“She was on a balcony,” Donald said, smiling back. “It was like Romeo and Juliet.”

I also got to watch Julie counsel a couple, Shantel and Paul, using the Gottman Method. The pair comes from a poorer neighborhood in Seattle, and they got free therapy in 2007 in exchange for agreeing to be filmed to help train other Gottman Method counselors. I’d intended to dip in just for a few minutes to get a sense of how Julie worked. But I ended up viewing six hours of the counseling in one afternoon, transfixed. Though Paul and Shantel could hardly have seemed less like me and my partner in their particulars–they had children; a low ebb in their relationship occurred after Paul got shot–so much of the by-turns-playful-and-reproachful dance that they did with each other on Julie’s couch reminded me of my own relationships: the flirty exchanges, the deep concern for each other, the subtle digs at each others’ flaws, the sudden flares of anger as they touched each other on open wounds. Shantel wept as she recounted how Paul criticized her; Paul cried himself as he recalled being abandoned by his godmother and how he fears Shantel’s rejection.

I called Shantel in late July. Like the other couples I spoke to, she reckoned the Gottman Method “kept us married.” Since they’d met as young teens, she and Paul had basically been each other’s only ports in an incredibly stormy world. In his teens, Paul got involved in the drug trade; later, the pair got caught up in the predatory lending crisis and briefly became homeless. Add to that the fact that they had not selected each other to ride out this turmoil on the basis of a problem-solving-compatibility survey but on love, which often, like a trickster determined to upend our tidy plans, draws opposites together and, by reminding us of our emotionally fraught childhood bonds with our parents, brutally reveals just how vulnerable and childlike we really still are. Add to that the fact that our culture teaches us to expect love to “feel right,” to feel like a peaceful resolution rather than an adventure, to feel as calm as faith.

“Every time we got into a huge argument, we thought it must not be ‘meant to be,’” Shantel said. Julie’s techniques gave them a way to navigate the astounding complexity that is a marriage based on love. “One of the biggest things is being able to notice when we are ‘flooded’ and when we are at a place we can’t even engage and giving each other that space,” she told me. “We love telling each other when we’re ‘turning towards’ each other. ‘Hey, I’m making an attempt here to turn towards you. What I did was wrong. It was unfair.’ And the other person is receptive to that because we both have an understanding of what it means.”

In private, the Gottmans are much more nuanced on the impossibility of healing some relationships than they are in public. “Sometimes, really, people’s dreams don’t mesh,” John reflected. “There are all kinds of reasons why therapy can fail.” I got the sense they deeply care about couples in pain—they asked me several times about my own relationship. Their promise that mastering love is possible is, in part, an effort to comfort couples enmeshed in terrifying complexity. “Even if you can give somebody one little nugget of something they can take in, it’s helpful,” Julie said.

I still don’t quite know what’s going to happen with my relationship. But I left the workshop wanting to try the Gottmans’ techniques. They brought to mind a line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. … Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.” The new love science may be just a string in the increasingly huge and windy maze that is contemporary love, no more absolute than all the other ways of thinking about love we’ve invented over 50,000 years—but we need that string.

Before I left Seattle, the Gottmans invited me out to their home on Orcas, the forested island off the northwest Washington coast. A giant silver sculpture of a heart invites visitors down a steep, wooded path towards the sea. The house’s interior is a wondrous world unto itself: wood carvings, ochre-and-sienna Native American-inspired throw blankets, shelves and shelves of books, a wooden dining-room table painted with playful injunctions. Enjoy the fruits of your labors. Open your mind. Seek knowledge. Seize the day. Cherish the night.

“It’s mostly Julie,” John said proudly as we tucked our feet into sheepskin slippers. “She’s a frustrated architect.” He stopped in front of a huge oil portrait just off the foyer depicting the two Gottmans together, smiling and leaning into each other. A friend had painted it. “I love this because it really captures our relationship,” he said. He paused for a moment before the painting as if to take it in anew.