Men are hopeless at talking about their feelings and incapable of facing emotional problems, and that's why so many marriages end in divorce, right? Not exactly, says Professor John Gottman.

Jack O'Sullivan listens.

Neanderthal man is a little out of fashion these days on American campuses, so it's not often that you hear an urbane American professor preaching his virtues. But John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, is getting very excited about In Defence of the Cave Men. It's currently running on Broadway and for the professor, fast becoming America's top marriage guru, the play is a great example of just how good men can be at relationships.

"There's this exchange," he explains, "where the wife says, `How can you be friends with Harry. I don't understand the basis of the friendship.' `Why?' says the husband. `We've been friends for years.' `But he's such a miser,' replies the wife. `Such a penny pincher. It's so obnoxious.' `Yeah,' says the husband. `But he's my miser.'

"In other words," explains the professor, "he is saying that he accepts all his friend's faults. It's like a shoe that you've broken in. It's comfortable because you like it and know it. He accepts his friend with all his faults and just appreciates what's positive about the relationship. Men are much better at that. Women are more idealistic, so in their relationships they work and work on problems and talk about their feelings and try to make the relationship work better and better."

In a way it's a strength because the female approach can make for improved relationships. But, says the professor, it can also lead to great disillusionment - and divorce.

This is not a perspective usually offered in the great debate about the massive rate of marriage breakdown. Discussion typically leads to a resounding chorus. Men are the real problem. It is a theme likely to echoed today at a major conference on "The Chaos of Love", sponsored by One Plus One, the marriage research charity. After all, nearly three quarters of divorce proceedings are begun by women. And in existing marriages, there seems to be plenty of evidence that women are getting a raw deal. Little more than half of married women would choose the same spouse if they had a second chance. In contrast, nearly three quarters of guys would pick the same wife. The answer seems obvious. Men have to change. Everything, says the conventional wisdom, would be OK if only they became more like women, who, as the great emotional communicators, are assumed to have monopolised the skills required for successful wedlock.

For Professor Gottman, however, the issue is a little more complicated. In some ways, women need to become more like men if marriages are to succeed. He has spent two decades at his Washington "love lab", recording the interactions of couples in an effort to develop scientifically proven advice on how to make a marriage last. In one study he successfully predicted correctly 94 per cent of those who would be heading for divorce in three years' time. So he knows a thing or two about what makes a marriage thrive. At 55, bearded and sporting a skull cap, Professor Gottman brings to a subject that is all too often the preserve of talk shows and women's magazines, the weighty consideration of a rabinnical sage.

He traces the willingness of men to avoid conflict in imperfect relationships to their childhood experiences of games. "Have you ever noticed," he says in his book published today, "that boys don't let quarrels break up the all-important game? It's not that they don't get angry - boys quarrel all the time on the ball field, arguing endlessly over the rules - but they just don't seem to attach the same importance that girls do to their arguments. In the most intense debates during boys' games, the final word is always to `play it over'. The goal is to literally `keep the ball in play', to not let the emotions rule."

But there is also a physiological factor behind male inclination to withdraw in instances of marital rows. Men find it very hard to relax again once their heart rates reach a certain level and the system floods with adrenaline. "If you had 20 men and 20 women in this room," says the professor, "and banged on the desk, you would find that the male heart rate goes up higher and stays up longer than the women's. So whereas men are more likely to say `I need to cool down. I need a break. I need to stop talking about this,' women will keep wanting to talk out an issue and become very distraught. But it is healthier for men to withdraw because they are taking care of their bodies. Women are very bad at knowing when they need a break." This explains why some women will stay in a relationship that is really harmful to them.

This then is one lesson that women can learn from men - that sometimes it is important to take time out when arguing, rather than pursue the matter relentlessly.

Are there any other virtues in the male model of friendship?

"One way in which men are clearly superior to women in the interpersonal realm," he says, "is in the ability to play. In a close marital relationship, men are just better in the silly areas, in being aware of the absurdity of life, in their ability to laugh at themselves. Women are just much, much more serious. It is the guy who will throw the snowball at his wife as she is walking out of church. Women really like humour and appreciate it in men. And it really benefits children. The ability of a father to be a playmate turns out to be very important in helping children learn the ability to regulate their emotions. Fathers who are playful with their kids have children who get very excited, but are able to calm down. They have a much better relationship with other children - it's true of daughters as well as sons."

Professor Gottman's book by no means cheerleads for men in marriage. His research has not surprisingly identified the seismic rift in many marriages as being the inability of many men to communicate their feelings and emotions to women in an acceptable form, leading to dissatisfaction among women. Great frustration is also felt at male failure to engage with female complaints, by stonewalling and defensiveness.

Men and women, he concludes, are each prisoners of an evolutionary heritage ill-suited to successful modern marriage. "For men," says the professor, "the problem is our role of keeping vigilant, making sure everyone is safe. That is in some ways now a liability. It explains why after a marital conflict men are much more likely to be rehearsing thoughts that maintain distress. They are maintaining vigilance until they get a chance to retaliate." And it is just such vindictiveness that poisons relationships.

The woman's liability from evolution is a tendency towards enmeshment with those around her, once a means of securing safety for feeding and raising children. "So women are very quick to think of any issue at all, even if it is stress in the guy's life at work, as collective, their stress. The basic complaint we get from men is that they feel criticised by a wife who has an infinite list of unreasonable demands and that they would have to change their entire personality to keep their wives happy."

It's a depressing picture, I suggest, of men and women doomed by evolution to play out a conflict beyond their control and understanding. Is it possible for couples to find common ground?

Certainly, reassures the professor. "In the marriages that are working, women are softening their start up, when an argument begins, instead of coming down like the Dambusters as they might with their girlfriends. Instead of saying: `You're so cold and unemotional. You never pay attention to me,' they'll say, `I have really been missing you lately. You're such a good kisser. Last Sunday when we were kissing in the kitchen, it was great. Can we do more of that?' And the guys who are making marriages work are accepting the influence of women on what they do. They are modifying their behaviour instead of withdrawing in the face of complaints. In other words, in people who are making their marriages work, we are seeing a meeting in the middle. We are seeing men and women taking the best from the female and the male models of friendship."

`Why Marriages Succeed or Fail - And How You Can Make Yours Last' by John Gottman, Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99.

How to argue without ruining your marriage

1. The magic 5 to 1 ratio: make sure there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between you and your partner as there is negative

2. Remove blame from your comments

3. Say how you feel

4. Listen to your partner

5. Don't criticise or try to analyse your partners' personality

6. Don't insult, mock or use sarcasm

7 Be direct and stick with one situation, rather than dragging up the past

8. Learn how to calm yourself when floods of emotion block communication. Discuss how you can take a break

9. Try to think of your partner's good qualities - praise and admire them.

10. Look at these principles again and again. It takes a long time to learn new habits.