The active-listening model might work if people could really do it, but,
Gottman said, shaking his head, it's just too hard to be an empathic, active
listener when somebody is criticizing or attacking you. "I have seen the Dalai
Lama do this," he joked, "and I am sure that Jesus and the Buddha did this, and
that Moses did not do this."
Gottman's presentation frustrated many at the conference, who point out that he
himself has never tested any marriage program. And, Markman says, Gottman is
wrong in asserting that active listening is the cornerstone of programs
like PREP. "In PREP," he says, "active listening is only one of four or five
cornerstones and is designed to counteract the danger signs that predict
divorce and marital distress." In dismissing active listening, Gottman seemed
to be challenging a major foundation of the work of nearly every expert at the
conference, including Markman, whom he refers to as his former "student"
("collaborator," Markman says). In fact, in several conversations with me
Gottman appeared to be unacquainted with the specifics of several major
programs. Moreover, his own work indicates that happy couples have less
I appealed to Gottman after his presentation, when we talked in the lobby of
the Sheraton National: "The research says these programs work, right?" "The
research sucks," Gottman replied. "The sampling is inadequate and unscientific.
It's skewed because the people who took PREP, for example, were different from
those who refused it."
Yet the PREP research, government-funded and highly regarded, like Gottman's
own, found PREP to be associated with significantly lower divorce rates and
greater marital satisfaction after five years. "Every program does
better than the control group," Gottman insisted. The five major programs
studied, he said, all show that after two years 30 to 50 percent of the couples
in the program had significantly greater marital satisfaction than those in the
But if 30 to 50 percent of couples can be helped ... ? "It's a placebo
effect," Gottman said. Surely these programs go beyond a placebo? In all of
them couples do something together, invest in it together, and communicate in
some constructive way. Maybe that's what improves their marriages. "No,"
Gottman said flatly. One of these programs teaches a kind of quid-pro-quo
trading that has been associated with the most dysfunctional marriages, he
said. Yes, bitter couples do tote up competing tabs. But what if this bartering
system is introduced to a happy couple? Can't it be an effective method for
learning each other's needs? "Yes," Gottman concedes. "This could be right."
No system, however, works for everybody, Gottman said. Antisocial or borderline
personalities, chronic depressives, psychotics, incest and child-abuse
survivors, all require different methods. What we need is to test different
kinds of interventions with larger, more inclusive, more scientific samples.
"My hunch," Gottman said, "is that seventy percent of couples could be helped
in some way, so that they wouldn't divorce but would be meaningfully improved
in marital satisfaction—move up from unhappy to at least okay." He took out a
ruled pad and scrawled down figures. He would need 10,000 couples, varying in
ethnic, racial, educational, and economic background, and in degree of
pathology. He would do a matching random survey of couples who did not
volunteer, paying them for their responses over time. The study would be
administered at five or six major universities around the United States by the
best researchers in the marital field. He began listing them, and after a pause
he jotted down at the bottom "Markman."