Half of marriages end in divorce—true or false?
False, as it turns out. The actual divorce rate is much lower—for college graduates married in the 1990s, it’s about 16%, a far cry from the 50% touted by conventional wisdom. As you’ve probably learned, conventional wisdom is often wrong about a lot of things. But when it comes to marriage—that commitment that we make “for better or for worse”—we often have little more than conventional wisdom, traditions and anecdotal evidence to go on.
For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, by Tara Parker-Pope, aims to change that. The book is an exploration of a diverse array of studies that have been done about marriages, relationships, sex, parenting, flirting and more, and it’s meant to provide evidence-based answers rather than “well, it feels right” advice.
When I first read about For Better, I was hoping it would be like NurtureShock, only for marriages. Like NurtureShock, this book is based on scientific studies—however, the focus of the parenting book was on areas in which conventional wisdom was wrong, making almost every chapter an eye-opener. For Better, while it’s a great book on what makes marriages work or fail, didn’t always surprise me with its findings. Maybe that’s a good sign for my marriage, but it meant that the book wasn’t as compelling a read and it took me a while to work through it.
However, despite the fact that it wasn’t an exciting page-turner, I’d still consider For Better recommended reading for GeekDads and GeekMoms—indeed, for anyone contemplating marriage (or divorce). Parker-Pope, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, became interested in the science of marriage when her own marriage of seventeen years ended in divorce. She had written often about medicine and disease, and knew a lot about finding evidence-based answers to health questions, but she couldn’t find something similar for relationships and was disappointed by “relationship experts” and self-help books. Instead, she turned to science, and found that there’s actually a wealth of knowledge if you know where to look.
Back to that divorce rate, for instance: risk of divorce is influenced by a variety of factors, including your age when you marry, level of education, and even the decade you got married. People who got married decades ago are more likely to get divorced than recent newlyweds. The reason for this may partly be due to the changing nature of marriages—as more of a partnership than a relationship of economic support—as well as other trends which Parker-Pope addresses. When you think of the success or failure of a marriage as having about the same odds as a coin flip, it doesn’t necessarily encourage you to do something about it if things take a turn for the worse; perhaps knowing that most marriages succeed would make a difference in how you respond to difficulties.
The truth is, we all marry “for better,” right? Nobody enters into this thing hoping that it’ll make their lives worse. And the science shows, most of the time, there are tremendous benefits to marriage: longer lifespans, better health and more wealth. But there are also conflicts that arise: money issues are high on the list; infidelity; chore wars; and, of course, the roller coaster that is parenting.
For Better walks you through all of this, citing studies and statistics, and offering some simple quizzes to diagnose the health of your own relationship and offering practical steps towards making improvements where needed. It teaches you how to fight well and how to resolve conflicts, how to improve your sex life, how to lower your risk for divorce. For myself, I thought two chapters were particularly interesting: the one on parenting gave some insights about the effects of children on a marriage, good and bad; another chapter talked about gender roles and power struggles, which was particularly interesting to me as a stay-at-home dad with many of my responsibilities reversed from the traditional model.
Some of the studies are things that you may have heard in sound-bite form: eye-rolling is a strong predictor of divorce; the first three minutes of a fight are the most important; it takes five positive interactions to counter one negative interaction. What’s different about For Better is the way that it digs into the research and really explains what that means. Unfortunately, not even science has all the answers: there are places where the book discusses the results of a study but the causation is still unclear. In these cases Parker-Pope does her best to give a solid analysis but in the end you’re left to judge for yourself.
Marriage books are a hard sell—either you think your marriage is great so you don’t need to read them, or you think your marriage is in trouble but you doubt a book could really change anything. For Better is great because it gives you a way to assess the health of your marriage and find its strengths and weaknesses, and then offers concrete steps towards addresses the problem areas.
Wired: Relationship advice backed by evidence instead of anecdotes; Parker-Pope is good at giving a clear, easy-to-understand explanation of the science.
Tired: Not always an exciting read; some scientific studies show correlation but don’t prove causation, leaving you with inconclusive evidence.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.