- The “love lab” in downtown Seattle allows couples to have their relationship analysed, through observation and physiological measurements.
- The day-long experience costs $US4,500.
- Couples receive a personalised report and find out how they can improve the quality of their relationship.
John Gottman has become famous as the man who can reportedly predict with scary-high accuracy whether a couple will get divorced.
In 1986, the psychologist and his colleagues built a research lab at the University of Washington, which subsequently came to be known as the “love lab.” There, they’d observe couples discuss tense topics and take physiological measurements – like the partners’ heart rate and blood pressure – and assess the strength of the relationship.
Gottman and his team would follow the couples for years in order to determine what kinds of behaviours were linked to successful – and unsuccessful – relationships. Since 1996, Gottman and his wife, psychologist Julie Schwartz Gottman, have run the Gottman Institute, where they conduct their research.
The love lab closed several years ago. But in February 2018, it reopened in downtown Seattle, with more advanced technology.
What the ‘love lab experience’ is really like
According to the Gottman Institute website, each couple who signs up spends a full day at the love lab. The “love lab experience,” as it’s called, costs $US4,500. “It’s expensive, so people have to be serious about it,” Carrie Cole, the lab’s research director, told me. (The proceeds go toward future research on relationships, she said.)
Similar to what happened in the previous iteration of the love lab, each person is hooked up to the equipment that takes their physiological measurements while they’re led through two, video-recorded conversations with each other. One conversation focuses on recent events; the other focuses on an area of disagreement.
The couples are then given the chance to review the recordings and provide their own assessments.
Finally, the couples meet with Cole, who highlights the relative strengths and potential challenges in their relationship. In addition to a 36-page personalised report, the couple gets recommendations from Cole on how to tackle those challenges. As a follow-up to the love lab experience, every couple has the option to spend either one day or three days in treatment with Cole.
The lab goes beyond what couples say, to understand how they feel
Assessments of a relationship’s strength are made based on multiple pieces of data at the love lab, including the emotions the couple displays and the couple’s own account of their relationship. But the physiological component of the love lab experience (i.e. all those wires attached to your body) is primarily what distinguishes it from a typical visit to a couples’ therapist.
Julie Schwartz Gottman told me that, in the early days of the Gottmans’ research, she was surprised to learn “you could have a couple sitting on a couch, having a conflict conversation, and they would look perfectly calm. They would look as if they were discussing the weather.”
But once you outfitted them with heart rate monitors and other instruments, “we saw that those people would sometimes have heart rates as high as 140, 150 beats a minute, while they were sitting there looking as calm as little cucumbers.” That is to say, the technology allowed the researchers to see when one or both partners were distressed, even if the partners didn’t know it themselves.
Schwartz Gottman said, “There was a direct correlation between those high physiological measures that we saw and the relationship’s demise five, six years down the road.”
When the Gottmans led treatment for couples, they would focus partly on helping people stay calm during conflict discussions. If one partner showed signs of physiological arousal, the person needed to take a break. Schwartz Gottman said, “When they came back to continue the conversation, it was as if they’d had a brain transplant. They looked completely different and spoke completely differently to one another.”
How the Gottmans have – and haven’t – revolutionised relationship science
To be sure, the Gottmans’ work is not without its critics. As journalist Laurie Abraham explained in her 2010 book, “The Husbands and Wives Club,” John Gottman may not really have “predicted” divorce. Instead, he used his observational data to create an equation that could distinguish between happy and unhappy couples once he already knew which couples had divorced.
Still, as Abraham notes, the Gottmans’ contributions to relationship science have been extremely valuable. For example, based on a 14-year study of 79 couples, John Gottman identified four behaviours that he calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
As Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin reported, those behaviours are contempt, or a mix of anger and disgust that involves seeing your partner as beneath you; criticism; defensiveness; and stonewalling, or blocking off conversation.
Going forward, with scientific data about your relationship in hand
At the old love lab, Cole told me, “we didn’t offer a lot of guidance and support,” in the sense that couples didn’t get detailed feedback on how to improve the quality of their relationships.
Now, that 36-page report includes charts and diagrams that show what’s going right and potentially wrong in a relationship. Cole said one diagram shows couples exactly what they’d need to modify in order to change the entire trajectory of their relationship.
Cole told me she wanted the love lab experience to be “engaging, comforting, hopeful” – not harsh and sterile-feeling. She said she aims to “give them critical, science-based information and deliver it in a way that is warm and genuine.”
Perhaps most importantly, couples who visit the love lab are encouraged to feel empowered to make the changes their relationship needs – not doomed to disaster. According to the Gottman Institute website, if you visit the lab and learn you have a high probability of divorce, that does not mean you should break up immediately.
The website reads: “Changing those negative behaviours that predict divorce to more positive behaviours that predict success can significantly change the course of your relationship and make it better.”
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