By James Freeman
The April 19th
issue of Newsweek included this irresistible tease: "The science of
marriage is unlocking the secrets of who stays hitched -- and who
doesn't." What? You mean we don't have a choice in the matter? Even
love can be reduced to a scientific formula?
At first, I
figured this was a new genetic discovery. I assumed that some
biologist with a million-dollar machine had deduced that right on
the end of a particular strand of DNA, there's a low-down,
two-timin,' gene that dictates every betrayal of a cheatin' heart.
Actually, the story was about the "science" of University of
Washington psychologist John Gottman. Gottman studies the
ingredients for a successful marriage -- not genetic factors, but
techniques. If you were writing a book on managing relationships,
you might call them the highly effective habits of happy couples.
Newsweek calls it science.
That's because the term "science"
gets broader every day. In our technology-driven age, whether people
want to present opinions or simply re-package common sense, the key
to successful marketing is to present your ideas as scientific
Gottman, alleged to be happily married to his
second wife, is of course peddling a new book on the characteristics
of successful marriages. He's made some fascinating discoveries
after extensive research in his "laboratory." Gottman's discovered
that the following conditions are not good for relationships:
criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Eureka! And
people say we don't get a return from investments in scientific
How does Gottman plumb the depths of the romantic
soul? One technique is to videotape couples during discussions and
then conduct thorough facial analysis. Gottman and his crack team of
experts study the tapes for valuable clues. For example, when a
woman rolls her eyes while her husband is talking, that's
Gottman tells Newsweek how he's able to spot the couples
who are in trouble. He recounts the story of one couple who started
every discussion of their problems by hurling sarcasm and criticism
at one another. With his finely trained eyes and ears and wealth of
experience, Gottman correctly predicted that this couple would have
difficulties. Yes, folks, it's a fine line between hard science and
Gottman applied the knowledge of his
scientific investigations to create a special test for Newsweek
readers to determine the health of a relationship. It's a True/False
test, and includes statements like these: "My partner generally
likes my personality." If the answer is "False," it could be a sign
that something's not quite right in the marriage. The test was a
reality check for me, because I always thought that the key to
happiness was to marry someone whose personality you cannot stand.
Gottman's new book, probably destined for best-seller
status, is called "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work."
Nice. Apparently, it's a rule of self-help publishing that every
secret of life has to involve numbers.
Stephen Covey has his
"7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Suze Orman has her "9 Steps
to Financial Freedom." Marilu Henner goes for the "30 Day Total
Health Makeover." Not surprisingly, the king of the self-help gurus
provides his fans with the most numbers. When you buy Tony Robbins'
30 Day Program for Unlimited Success, you not only get 24 tapes
spread over 12 volumes, but they include the 4 elements of destiny,
the 3 levels of responsibility necessary for lasting change, the 6
human needs, and the 2 major factors that destroy relationships. Add
them all up and you get a whopping 81 things!
destined for success in this game, because he has just as many
principles as Covey has habits, but he has many more items than
Robbins if you just count relationship things. If you count
Gottman's 7 Principles, plus his "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse,"
which damage relationships, you get a combined total of 11
principles. Robbins has just 2 on his list. Eleven is more than 2 --
a lot more. In fact, Gottman has 9 more things on his list -- as big
a lead over Robbins as the total number of Suze Orman's financial
strategies. Impressive, but Gottman should maintain a sense of
humility. After all, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul Volume 2 has
101 new stories. Read 'em and weep, Gottman.
We all need
coaches, and if you need a Tony Robbins tape or a John Gottman book
to fire you up, fine. But this "science" can't tell you anything
about love that you don't already know. Marriages can work in lots
of ways, probably including relying on lists from self-help gurus,
but broken marriages all fail for the same reason -- people stop
James Freeman is Editor of the new online education magazine
for kids, KnowledgeDaily.com.
His column appears each Wednesday on USATODAY.com. To talk back to
James Freeman, click
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