Will Science Ever Be Able to Explain Love?

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When it comes to love, we’re in an algorithm-obsessed age. Sites like OKCupid dump significant resources into figuring out better and better ways to match people, despite a lack of evidence online compatibility leads to offline chemistry. Psychological researchers, meanwhile, are hard at work trying to develop data-based approaches to figuring out who will fall and stay in love, and who won’t. Over at Huffington Post’s Highline, Eve Fairbanks takes us on a big, sad, fascinating tour of one attempt to marry love and numbers, and it’s worth reading all the way through.

It’s part personal essay, part profile of John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, a Washington State–based couple who have created a so-called Gottman Method to help couples who are struggling in their relationships. An academic psychologist, John’s work has focused primarily on observing thousands of couples interact, and then trying to develop ways to predict which ones stay together (by looking at things like whether couples reciprocate each other’s “bids” for attention — how one will respond to the other pointing out a cool bird outside the kitchen window, for example — he’s claimed a 90 percent plus rate of accuracy in some instances). The couple’s method, largely based on John’s work, turns out huge audiences. 

The central tension of the piece is that you can have all the data in the world, but love remains a weird, random, hard-to-pin-down thing. This sounds like an obvious point, but it pops up in surprising, heartbreaking ways throughout the essay. Another central point of tension in the piece has to do with causality: In other words, “Okay, we’ve figured out that couples who do X tend to stay together, so will it work to teach X to unhappy couples?” For example, there’s this scene from a Gottman workshop:

[H]abits of mind take work to instill. Everyone at the workshop was given a kit in a box with a handle. Inside were decks of cards proposing questions to help us learn about our partners (“how are you feeling now about being a mother?”) or offering ways to connect erotically (“when you return home tonight, greet each other with a kiss that lasts at least six seconds”). A manual provided us with a vocabulary to demystify and contain some of the scary things that go on in love: fights are “regrettable incidents,” the things that make us feel good together are our “rituals of connection,” the dark inner chasms that regrettable incidents seem to reveal are our “enduring vulnerabilities.”

As Fairbanks points out, many couples who attend the Gottmans’ workshops, or others like them, swear that doing so saved their marriage. But the people running the workshops have little incentive, despite their data-driven approaches elsewhere, to actually track participants’ outcomes, because what if the numbers don’t come back in their favor? What if some other workshop’s approach is better?

All this stuff is really complicated, and in taking readers through it, Fairbanks pokes provocatively at the edges of science’s usefulness. You should read this essay.