Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Can science save your marriage?

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 findings.

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 research.

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 bad.

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 over-hyped self-help.

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!

Gottman seems 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 giving.


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 here.

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