No, men are to blame for the crisis because they can't accept women have changed. Angela Neustatter on an explosive new theory
Nineties Woman is an instantly recognisable stereotype. Dressed for success in assertively sexy clothes, she strides forth to the workplace, where the cheque she picks up gives her economic independence. Fuelled by "girl power", she is well aware of her own worth. She wants the partner she chooses to share and care and, most importantly, she expects him to be emotionally communicative. If he doesn't match up to her requirements, she may very well spin on a needle heel and walk out of their mutual life.

This is a crude caricature but it illustrates the fundamental changes in women's roles and attitudes over the past half-century. It is the impact of these changes on marriage, and the controversial fact that women are increasingly seen to be setting the agenda in relationships, that is a focus of the major conference in London on 3 December. Entitled "The Chaos of Love", the conference will bring together a team of high-profile professionals working on relationships, including Professor John Gottman, who has spent 20 years studying married couples in his "love lab" at Washington University in Seattle. His book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (Bloomsbury), is published on the same day.

The conference has been arranged by One Plus One, an organisation that researches and supports relationships. Director Penny Mansfield explains: "There is a kind of chaos in relationships and a feeling that we have to find new ways of halting the number of them breaking down. In modern family life, everything has changed and expectations have also changed, with both people working, trying to care for family and home. We haven't evolved a way of negotiating this satisfactorily. What comes through clearly is that women are no longer prepared to put up with relationships that don't take account of their feelings and needs and their way of wanting to address issues in the relationship. Our message is that it's up to men to respond."

Mansfield stresses that the conference is not designed to deify women and show men as the villains, though, says Janet Reibstein, Cambridge psychotherapist and moderator at the conference, there is an acceptance that "the female defined idea of love and marriage is the right one these days".

Gottman's scientific work in the love lab involved studying couples by video camera and intensively monitoring their behaviour to measure the physiological changes that take place during conflict. He will bring to the conference the findings of a seven-year study looking at the things that make happy marriages work. He will argue that the key to marital success is men who "have the emotional intelligence to accept the influence of wives". In other words, men should understand that, for many women, intimate communication is the bedrock of marriage, and make time to share those feelings.

But Gottman observes drily that this is a far cry from what so often happens. He describes "the classical marital impasse - a wife seeking emotional connection from a withdrawn husband. The more he withdraws, the more frustrated she becomes." What may have begun as a wife's attempt to have a non-confrontational chat about the state of their relationship turns into a row.

Gottman says we might understand this "marital cascade" better if we grasp the complex reasons, rooted in biology and socialisation, that lie behind it. He is compassionate towards male behaviour but sees it as crucial that men find ways to do 'emotional work' if marriages are to succeed. "Marital strife has a physiological basis as well as a psychological one. Men tend to have shorter fuses and longer-lasting explosions than women."

In his laboratory, he has seen how, when emotional conflict begins, the man's heart rate immediately soars and tales a long time to recover. "This heightened state of physiological arousal makes it very difficult for a man to listen to his wife," Gottman says. "The male's autonomic nervous system, which controls much of the body's stress response, may be more sensitive and take far longer to recover from emotional upset than the average female's. Men are more likely to repeat negative thoughts that keep them riled up even when they withdraw from an argument."

This situation will be exacerbated by the childhood message boys receive that their emotional expression is bad and so "men grow up having a harder time recovering from upset, being told to suppress feelings and learning to avoid them", Gottman says. By contrast, women grow up being encouraged to express and explore feelings.

Dr Mike Perring, a marital therapist and director of Optimal Health Clinics in London, thinks men need to learn the difference between having "control" or "charge" over feelings. "Control is a word men are quick to use, it implies that you shouldn't have the feelings. Charge suggests that it is possible to keep feelings in check when necessary, then find an appropriate time to bring them out." And then it

may be easier to open up a dialogue where a couple can ask each other if they are satisfied with the relationship, without it feeling like an attack.

Yet talk or books alone have never been enough to guide some couples, which Gottman recognises. At the conference, he will discuss his latest big idea, that "coaching" rather than traditional marriage therapy may be more effective for helping couples sort out problems. In "coaching" a couple are taught good practice, as seen in couples with happy marriages; whereas traditional marital therapy explores the individuals' pasts. Gottman says you can coach couples to move from a gridlocked position over perpetual problems. It may not solve every disagreement, but he believes we must accept some disagreements as the turf of living.

It is an approach that worries Christopher Clulow, director of the Tavistock Marital Studies Institute, who is also speaking at the conference. "All relationships are different," he says, "and much of what goes wrong is to do with the kind of assumptions we grow up with. It is the same for men and women. A coach brings in someone else's ideas and way of doing things and takes away the personal meaning. I think there is something very worrying about the idea of an idee fixe for dealing with relationships." While he agrees that the choices for women and new sense of who they are has impacted on relationships, he is worried by the idea that we point the finger at men as the non-communicators: "I've seen the picture in reverse and men feeling very isolated and that they are not heard. "

Charlie Lewis at Lancaster University, who has spent his academic life studying families, worries that the conference may be missing the point. "We have had this emotional talk stuff forced down our throats and it has become accepted, as things so often do, without any real empirical evidence, as the truths of our time. I look at families where they don't have emotional talk, but they survive very well on masculine banter. Or where you ask if there is closeness between partners and the woman rolls her eyes saying, "I wish", but she talks to friends and has a very good but different relationship with the old man. The tensions and problems couples have are far more structural than emotional - like in dual working families, there isn't enough time, the pace of life, the demands made on us all."

Even so, the conference will focus on the idea that a new kind of marriage is emerging, where people enter it for specific benefits and leave if these are not delivered. Perring shares Gottman's view that it is men who need to shift. This may sound harsh, but we need to remember that marriage has been built on a male model, with women accommodating men's ways and desires for centuries. Reibstein says, "Women do not want to walk out, there is no benefit for them in losing their marriages, but this conference is about looking at ways to move towards more egalitarian relationships."

Gottman's research shows that "generally, in happy marriages there are no gender differences in emotional expression! But in unhappy ones, gender differences become exaggerated, making things worse." It underlines why men must respond to the new idea, so that women do not spin on their heels and walk away. Details of The Chaos of Love Conference on 0171 831 5261.

How emotionally literate are you? page 5