For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage
by Tara Parker-Pope. Penguin Group, 2010
After her own 17-year marriage went bust, New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope embarked on a new quest: to see what scientific research has to say about making marriage work. In her new book, she takes us on a journey through more than 100 scientific studies that tell us something about couples who have successful marriages: happy couples use humor to good effect, for example, and set limits on the way they argue. Unfortunately, we do not necessarily learn how the rest of us can have happy marriages, too.
The problem is that the book is based almost entirely on correlational studies—you know, the kinds that do not reveal anything about what is causing what. For example, based on a 1998 study by psychologist John Gottman, then at the University of Washington, and his colleagues showing that people in happy relationships tend to have five times more positive interactions than negative ones, Parker-Pope recommends that when you let someone down, you need to do at least five nice things to make up for it. But in successful relationships, people have far more positive interactions than negative ones; that is where the correlation comes from. Parker-Pope presents no evidence that deliberately moving in the direction of the five-to-one ratio will actually improve a relationship that is failing. My own 30 years of experience as a psychologist suggests that such formulas often fail. When a couple that is struggling leaves a counselor’s office equipped with simplistic advice, efforts to behave more positively often seem fake or forced, and an unhappy partner might even find more to complain about, hoping to push his or her partner into buying more gifts or paying more compliments. A system of this kind can
unravel in days or even hours.
In spite of the upbeat title, the book is also filled with bad news: about the pressures of parenting, recent statistics on cheating (especially by young couples), the weight-gain problem, the toll that snoring takes on marriage (causing one third of couples to sleep in separate beds), and the problem that sexless couples have in rekindling the spark. On the bright side, For Better reminds us that many couples do achieve harmony. Being with the right person from the outset undoubtedly helps—an issue not explored in the book—and so does strong mutual commitment to withstand the challenges that every marriage inevitably faces.