The stability and nonlinear dynamics of two semiconductor lasers coupled side to side via evanescent waves are investigated by using three different models. In the composite-cavity model, the coupling between the lasers is accurately taken into account by calculating electric field profiles (composite-cavity modes) of the whole coupled-laser system. A bifurcation analysis of the composite-cavity model uncovers how different types of dynamics, including stationary phase-locking, periodic, quasiperiodic, and chaotic intensity oscillations, are organized. In the individual-laser model, the coupling between individual lasers is introduced phenomenologically with ad hoc coupling terms. Comparison with the composite-cavity model reveals drastic differences in the dynamics. To identify the causes of these differences, we derive a coupled-laser model with coupling terms which are consistent with the solution of the wave equation and the relevant boundary conditions. This coupled-laser model reproduces the dynamics of the composite-cavity model under weak-coupling conditions. © 2008 The American Physical Society.