After more than two decades of taking American marriage into the laboratory and placing it under the scrutiny of everything but a microscope, one of the country's leading marital experts believes there is still reason for optimism and concrete steps that couples can take to avoid becoming just another statistic in divorce court.
The foundation of a happy marriage is friendship with your spouse, says John Gottman, a University of Washington psychology professor and author of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," which is being published this month by Crown Publishers. The book is based on nearly 25 years of scientific research into what makes marriages blossom or shrivel. The continuing research, which has enabled him to predict with more than 90 percent accuracy if a marriage will end in divorce, looks at what he calls "the masters and disasters" of marriage.
"People don't get married thinking their relationship won't work or to resolve conflicts they are having," says Gottman. "But, all too often, when a couple is experiencing trouble and seeks help, everyone looks at resolving conflict. Therapists are trained to ask 'what's the problem,' not what's good.
"Friendship is overlooked, although it is equally important to men and women. All of the masters of marriage (couples in happy, long-term relationships) we've studied talk about friendship in marriage and how loving and lovemaking is an extension of that friendship. Seventy percent of the passion, romance and sex for men stems from friendship and the percentage is even higher for women."
In workshops conducted to help couples enrich or improve their marriages, Gottman says he regularly hears women complain that "they are under attack" verbally when all they really want is to talk, be understood and be accepted by their partner.
He adds that couples in happy marriages tend to have less conflict because they do a better job of repairing the damage from a fight or disagreement. Some people are effective in making repairs and others are clumsy or ineffective. But that's not important, says Gottman. "It's really a matter of whether they had enough emotional savings in the bank that makes repair attempts work, and that comes from the quality of the friendship between the couple."
One of best ways of nurturing friendship is to keep what he calls a richly detailed "love map."
"That's my term for the imaginary place in your head where you store all of the relevant information about your partner's life - their dreams, aspirations, worries and fears. Couples with love maps remember the major events in each other's history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse's world changes," he explains.
"Love maps are about knowing your partner and being known. One of the most important things in marriage is being and staying interested in your partner and keeping your partner interested in you. No gimmick --flowers, candy or a candlelight dinner -- works unless your partner is genuinely interested in you and their face lights up when you enter the room."
Gottman's book also looks at alleged "major differences" between men and women, and he believes it's time to bring this discussion back to earth. In addition, he explores the role of anger in marriage and why men have difficulty being influenced by their wives.
"Men aren't from Mars, nor women from Venus," he says. "It is very important to realize that we are same, that we are operating on the same principles and that at the end of a hard day both men and women want the same thing. To be sure, there are differences, but they tend to be stylistic. For example, men are compulsive problem solvers while women are emotional facilitators. But we both share the same traits. We all need support, affection and to be listened to. When we start to realize that men and women are quite alike, it will reduce a lot of the strange advice we get about relationships."
As for anger, Gottman doesn't believe it is necessarily destructive to a relationship.
"What happens to anger is interesting. In a good marriage, anger is like putting emphasis or italics on something. The masters of marriage are dealing with anger differently than people in troubled marriages and are accepting of their partners' personalities.
"In our research, most people perceive anger as neutral and it is not seen as hostile as long as there is no personal attack. But if anger isn't expressed it breeds and can be destructive. Anger can be good if people don't store it and if they soften their approach so they don't assault their partner. Some people, however, clearly can get out of control. Almost anything can get them angry and their anger is likely to escalate into belligerence," he says.
Gottman believes his research showing that men should be willing to share power and be influenced by their wives is widely misunderstood
"It is not a matter of just saying 'yes dear.' What we said was that men need to look for areas of common ground with their wives. This is not being a wimp. It's a way for a man to say, 'Yes, I agree with you on this, but not that.'
"Only about one-third of American husbands accept the influence of their wives. This creates a paradox. A man can't be powerful unless he allows himself to be influenced. There is a reciprocity. The competent man accepts influence and becomes influential. In abusive relationships, men have little or no influence over their wives. They rule by fear, not influence. A good marriage needs give and take."
Why are so many men unwilling to allow their wives to influence them?
"It's probably cultural," says Gottman. "We see it in the ways parents respond to a child's request. The first response is to say, 'No,' even to the most innocent request. We have been raised with a culture of saying 'No' and a culture of criticism. When you take this culture into a family it is very destructive. We need to have a substitute culture of pride, honor and praise."