Oct. 26, 2000 -- Fourteen years ago, before psychologist John Gottman, PhD, had become one of the country's most respected marriage researchers, he was courting a woman at a seafood restaurant in Seattle. Dinner had just been served when the apple of his eye, in a grouchy mood, let loose with a nasty comment. Gottman fell to the floor, clutching his chest. From underneath the table, he moaned, "Nice shooting, partner -- you got me," a line he stole from a cowboy game he used to play in an amusement arcade. When he came up from under the table, his future wife was laughing -- and a tense moment was defused.
A lot of guys might have felt resentful when stung by a choice comment from a grumpy mate. Instead, Gottman used humor to de-escalate the tension that arises in every relationship. Today Gottman's insights into the nature and workings of married life are based on a lot more than just his own good instincts.
Gottman, you see, is a professional snoop. For 25 years, he's been spying on other people's marriages, bringing newly wed couples into his "love lab" at the University of Washington to videotape them as they chat, argue, and fume. He measures their heart rates and blood pressure, records every smile and contemptuous curl of the lip. And when he's done, he can predict -- with 94% accuracy, he claims -- how likely a couple is to stay together.
And staying together is important. Three decades after the "divorce boom" of the 1970s, experts throughout the United States are giving new credence to the notion that a mediocre marriage is better than a broken one. Some, such as psychologist Judith Wallerstein, PhD, argue that divorce damages children throughout their lives, sometimes preventing them from forming solid relationships in adulthood. In a controversial book released last month, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Wallerstein even makes the case that, from a child's point of view, all but the lousiest marriage is better than a good divorce.
Others, like Gottman, would not go that far. Divorce, he believes, hurts children mostly when parents fail to shield them from ongoing hostility and conflict. If divorcing couples cooperate in raising their children, he says, the kids can emerge relatively healthy and unscathed. Still, Gottman agrees that trying to stay together is an important goal -- and not just for the sake of the kids. After children, he says, men are the biggest beneficiaries of marriage.
"Married men live longer, they have fewer infectious illnesses and fewer heart attacks," he says. "They're just better off psychologically and physically regardless of the quality of the marriage. Marriage can be very helpful for women's health and longevity, too -- if it's a good marriage," he says. "But just being married is enough for men."
The reason for this disparity, Gottman says, is that without their wives, most men wouldn't have anyone to lean on. "Guys' social support systems really suck," he says. "You ask most men who they talk to when they're upset and they say, 'I don't talk to anybody.' Unless maybe they talk to their wives."
The bottom line: Whether they realize it or not, Gottman says, men have a major interest in making their marriages last -- and a great deal of influence over whether they actually do. Marriage is worth fighting for, and Gottman has some clear ideas about how men can join this battle.
To start with, he says, men need to look at the way they conceive of marriage and partnership. Gottman believes that within every successful marriage is an "emotionally intelligent husband" who shares power and decision-making with his wife and knows how to find common ground.
In a good marriage, a woman will feel not only that she's being heard but also that her husband is interested in what's going on in her life. He's visited her workplace, he knows her hopes and fears, even who her least favorite relative is. Gottman calls this having a "love map" of your partner's world. "It's easy to learn these things," Gottman says. "You just have to ask."
Another thing men can do -- and you might need to practice this, guys -- is to be less stingy with praise. Notice the things your partner does right, and tell her, every day. Gottman says couples in bad relationships have trouble with this. In one early study, published in the February 1980 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, nosy researchers observed couples at home and recorded every positive interaction. They asked the couple to do the same and found something interesting: People in troubled marriages underestimated by half the number of good interchanges. "They just weren't seeing what was good," Gottman says. That kind of outlook, Gottman says, is one big reason why the American divorce rate now hovers at around 50%.
Guys also need to understand themselves and their own emotional workings -- if only to find out what primitive Neanderthals we really are. Case in point: During a marital spat, the blood pressure and heart rate of both spouses rise. But Gottman has discovered that with men, the jump comes a lot quicker and lasts a lot longer -- a function, he believes, of evolution: Our hunting, gathering forefathers were wired to respond quickly to possible dangers. And these days, well, we still can't always tell the difference between our wives and a charging predator. So what happens? We get criticized (we never start it, right?), stress hormones start coursing through our bloodstreams, and pretty soon it's darn near impossible to have a rational, productive discussion. Gottman's solution: Recognize the signs of your own arousal -- and know when to take a break.
"When you're feeling like you would rather watch any sport between any two teams than be in this conversation," Gottman says, "ask for a break." And make it last at least 30 minutes -- that's how long it takes for your body to get back to normal.
During the break -- maybe even before you need one -- look for ways to soothe your nerves. Gottman advocates a five-step technique that includes deep, rhythmic breathing, slow tensing and relaxing of all muscles, and the use of calming mental imagery -- a desert island, say, or a snow-covered mountain vista.
In his workshops for couples and in his books, Gottman asks couples to devote "five magic hours a week" to improving their marriage. Here's the love doctor's prescription:
- Part on a positive note. Don't leave in the morning until each of you knows something interesting about the other's upcoming day. And be sure to kiss -- a real one that lasts at least six seconds.
- Reconnect at the end of the day. Another six-second smooch, followed by 20 minutes of one-on-one conversation while the kids do homework or set the table. Share highlights of the day, complain a little if you need to (but NOT about each other), and get a sympathetic ear from your partner.
- Go to bed on a positive note. Gottman takes seriously the biblical injunction "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath." Translation: Avoid arguments before bedtime. Make a conscious effort to let go of the day's irritations. And have some physical contact, at least another six-second kiss.
- A daily appreciation. Forget Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame; think Bill Clinton -- a sincere Bill Clinton. Come on, it's not that hard to find something nice (and real) to say. If you have trouble, try this: Write down something good about your partner every day (and don't forget to share it). After a few weeks, it should become a habit -- and the good times will be closer to the surface of your consciousness.
- A weekly date (without the kids). And spend at least two hours of it talking one-on-one.
Following these guidelines takes a little work, and there'll be times you may wonder if it's worth it. Gottman has a quick rejoinder to that kind of doubt. "The studies all point to one thing," says Gottman. "You will live longer if you increase the amount of kindness around you." And you -- and your partner -- just might enjoy the extra time.
Rob Waters is a senior editor at WebMD.