For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage


Take The For Better Quiz #3: Defining Your Love Style.

One of the New York Times' most popular journalists presents groundbreaking scientific news about marriage. And, surprise: It's good news.

We've all heard the statistic: Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. It's enough to make many couples give up when the going gets rough, thinking that's what everybody else does. But what if it weren't true? What if, in fact, it's not only possible ...

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Take The For Better Quiz #3: Defining Your Love Style.

One of the New York Times' most popular journalists presents groundbreaking scientific news about marriage. And, surprise: It's good news.

We've all heard the statistic: Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. It's enough to make many couples give up when the going gets rough, thinking that's what everybody else does. But what if it weren't true? What if, in fact, it's not only possible but often easier than you think to save a seemingly troubled relationship? These are the questions Tara Parker-Pope asked herself after her own divorce. An investigative journalist on the health and wellness beat, she turned to some of the top biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and other scientists for the facts about marriage and divorce.

Those facts were more positive and provocative than she'd ever expected, and For Better offers page after page of astonishing, eye-opening good news. Parker-Pope presents the science behind why some marriages work and others don't; the biology behind why some spouses cheat and others remain faithful; the best diagnostic tools created by the most cutting-edge psychologists to assess the probability of success in getting married, staying married, or remarrying. There are questionnaires to uncover potentially damaging hidden attitudes toward spouses. There are tools to show the impact of routine, fresh activity and how small adjustments can make a huge difference. Tara Parker- Pope's genius is for exploring the science behind the big issues that affect our lives every day and translating that science into advice that we can use-every day.

For Better is the definitive guide to the most profound relationship of our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

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This book is for couples or singles who are tired of both pop-psych relationship nostrums and tough-talk TV marriage pundits. Written by Tara Parker-Pope, the investigative journalist keeper of the New York Times "Well" Blog, For Better searches for answers about human compatibility in science, not intuition. Tapping into the findings of psychologists, biologists, and neuroscientists, Parker-Pope shows that worries about the likelihood of sexual infidelity and divorce are often overblown and that success can be achieved by pairs willing to make the effort. An informed primer for spouses and singles on the lookout.

Publishers Weekly
“Marriage today is stronger than it has been in decades,” writes Parker-Pope (The Hormone Decision), author of the New York Times's “Well” blog. Interviewing biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and sociologists, she explores the science that can explain why a marriage succeeds—examining such areas as monogamy, love, sex, children, money, and housework—and translates the science into practical advice. For instance, while monogamy is not the norm among animals, it's certainly possible for some animals and for humans to remain sexually and socially faithful to one partner. Further, regular sex should be part of a good marriage even if it occurs less frequently over time. As for conflict, learning how to fight fairly allows partners to air differences without damaging their relationship. Describing the unhappy end of her own marriage, she looks at those relationships at high risk for divorce, such as the pursuer-distancer marriage (with the pursuer usually the woman) and the operatic marriage (“characterized by dramatic highs and lows”). Although the scientific research adds depth, much of the relationship advice is familiar and commonsensical, but married couples will still benefit from this refresher course. (May)
Library Journal
Parker-Pope, a science writer for the New York Times who was recently divorced, writes about the science of marriage—what works, what doesn't, and what the popularly held myths are. One of her most striking arguments is that not everyone is getting divorced, and she ponders whether that knowledge alone would help keep couples together. With the aim of showing people how to examine and improve their marriage, she reports current research on how money, sex, health, chores, and various other factors affect marriage. Insights on human or animal conditions regardless of how they relate to marriage are engaging on their own, e.g., the sharing of good news or "monogamous" birds. Interestingly, Parker-Pope does not address the very real problems associated with second marriages and children (for that, see Wednesday Martin's Stepmonster). While it's not immediately clear that couples should read this book together, it does feature questionnaires that the reader and spouse can take to evaluate their own situation. VERDICT The apparent predictability of a successful marriage leaves one to wonder whether this will eventually lead to a "test" for marriage, like the blood tests still required in some states. Owing to the likely publicity, this is a good choice for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/10.]—Margaret Cardwell, Memphis, TN
New York Times
“It is pure joy to read a book on so popular a subject as marriage that is not filled with pop-psych platitudes and prescriptive do’s and don’ts, but rather lets readers come to their own conclusions based on solid scientific research. Tara Parker-Pope, a dedicated science journalist, disabuses us of long held myths (like a soaring divorce rate or the need to avoid conflict in intimate relationships) and replaces them with facts that can help couples of any persuasion form stronger, steadier unions.”
—Jane E. Brody, columnist, The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780525951384
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/6/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

TARA PARKER-POPE, who writes the “Well” blog for The New York Times, is one of the newspaper’s most popular and most e-mailed journalists. She appears regularly on radio and television, including Today, Good Morning America, and CNN. Parker-Pope lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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Read an Excerpt


The Scientific Study of Marriage

What makes a good marriage?

The mystery of why some marriages succeed while others fail is something men and women have been trying to sort out for decades. What qualities make some people more successful at navigating the stormy waters of love while others lose their way? Why do some couples seem happy together while others are happiest apart? And is there any way to protect a marriage from the risks of stress, negativity, and divorce?

The answers to those questions come from a surprising place. Far from the therapy couch or self-help gurus, the best insights about love and relationships are coming from the scientific community. Top relationship researchers from dozens of universities around the world have devoted their careers to observing couples interact, collecting voluminous amounts of data about how men and women communicate, both in the words they use and in their body language and facial expressions. They have tracked pulse rates, blood pressure levels, and other physical responses that occur when couples talk, laugh, and argue. Scientists have even measured the effect marital conflict and stress can have on the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off colds or heal a wound. Brain scan studies of the newly in love and the long married offer glimpses into the physiological underpinnings of both passionate and lasting romantic love.

It’s now possible to deconstruct a marriage down to its most basic parts and predict, with surprising accuracy, the likelihood that a marriage will survive or end in divorce. Using computer-assisted coding programs and body sensors, scientists have analyzed thousands of hours of video recorded conversations between couples, tracking everything from facial movements and body language to pulse rate, sweat, and skin temperature. Computer-assisted word analysis programs have allowed researchers to pick apart conversations between couples and find meaning hidden in the rhythms and patterns of the words couples use when they communicate.

The insights these researchers have gained will give you an entirely new way of looking at your own relationship. The findings can be translated into surprisingly practical advice for couples. A gesture as seemingly minor as eye rolling or the manner in which a man retells the story of how he met his wife can be strong predictors of happy married life or a looming divorce. Scientists have even applied mathematical models to marriage, calculating, for instance, that strong marriages have at least a five-to-one daily ratio of positive to negative interactions. Simply translated, that means it’s not enough to apologize for mistreating your spouse. For every mistake you make, you need to offer five more good moments, kind words, and loving gestures to keep your marriage in balance.

Scientists have also studied divorce and can now tell couples what risk factors make their marriages most vulnerable. How couples argue, who starts the fight, and even the pronouns they use in conversation can all signal the success or failure of a marriage. Age differences, children, how often a couple has sex, and numerous other factors have all been studied in a daunting scientific quest to apply the logic and rigors of science to one of the most complex emotional relationships of our lives.

The good news from the study of marriage is that today, far more people are succeeding at marriage than failing. While that may run counter to the conventional wisdom, in reading this book you’ll learn the truth behind marriage and divorce statistics and why marriage today is stronger than it has been in decades.

You’ll also discover that assessing the overall health of your marriage (or the marriage potential of a prospective partner) is easier than you think. The trick is learning to distinguish between the normal, everyday conflicts and frustrations of human relationships and to focus on the real issues that may be standing in the way of a better relationship.

Did you know that solving your money problems can help solve your marital problems? Or that when you fight with your partner, the first three minutes of the argument count the most? Or that the division of housework duties in a home can have a direct impact on a couple’s sex life?

Whether you are embarking on a new marriage, hoping to rescue a troubled relationship, longing to get it right the second time around, or simply looking for ways to improve a good marriage, the scientific study of marriage has resulted in simple, practical advice for determining what matters most in a relationship and where to focus your energy to make it better.

My interest in the science of marriage stems from my own search for answers. As a longtime health writer who has spent hours reading medical and scientific journals, I often urge readers to take charge of their health and make decisions based on the available scientific evidence. But when my own seventeen-year marriage began to crumble, I found myself struggling to make sense of it. Bookstore shelves are filled with marriage advice books and self-help guides, but I couldn’t relate to the “straight talk” and platitudes found in most of them. I knew where to look for answers about heart disease, diabetes, allergies, and numerous other health issues, and I wanted the same objective, evidence-based advice about my marriage.

Using the Internet and medical and social science databases, I began to search for research on marriage and relationships. I was stunned to find a vast world of marital science beyond the self-help aisle. For decades, numerous scientists, from universities around the world, have been churning out credible, quantitative research filled with practical advice about marital health.

As a result, I set out to explore what science has taught us about lasting relationships and the complexities of courtship, love, and marriage. Over the past few years I’ve interviewed dozens of the world’s top marriage and relationship researchers and pored over hundreds of published research studies.

I’ve seen seemingly happy marriages, including my own, come to an end. Many had fallen victim to infidelity, while others seemed to crumble under the burdens of parenting and the demands of modern living. Could any of us have known that it would end this way? Should we have seen it coming? Was there a way to inoculate a relationship from the devastation of divorce?

The answer to all these questions is yes. Understanding the science of marriage gives us a crystal ball of sorts, to better predict which relationships will work and who will struggle to stay together. I realize now that had I known more about the basic scientific truths of love and marriage, I would have seen the limits of my own relationship from the beginning and noticed the telltale signs of trouble years sooner. Armed with the knowledge, I might have made better choices that could have helped save my marriage, or at least given me more confidence about the choice my husband and I made to end our relationship.

What’s so important about this scientific study of marriage is that it views the most important relationship of our life as a significant health issue that affects us both physically and emotionally. The goal is to diagnose and treat marital problems just as a doctor would diagnose and treat cancer, diabetes, or any other important health concern.

And just as doctors know that certain lifestyle habits influence disease risk, the scientific quest to better understand marriage has helped us identify important risk factors for divorce. Researchers have found practical ways that couples can better insulate a marriage against failure. And there’s even advice to help long-married couples reignite the passion and excitement that they experienced during the early romance of their courtship.

Each chapter of this book will explore the science behind various aspects of marriage, such as monogamy, love, sex, children, money, housework, and conflict. Most important, this book will translate the science of marriage into practical, actionable advice—a prescription for marital health—that you can use to improve your relationship. In some chapters, you’ll even find the measurement scales and quizzes researchers use to gauge the quality of a relationship or the depth of passion and commitment couples feel.

My hope is that in reading this book, you will gain insights about yourself, your relationship, and possibly even the marriages of your parents, in-laws, and others closest to you. While the title of this book and much of the research it explores focuses on marriage, the lessons learned often are applicable to any couple hoping to pursue a committed, long-term relationship. Understanding the science of love and marriage can help single people make better choices in the pursuit of their ideal mate. For some readers, the science may empower them to extricate themselves from a doomed relationship. But hopefully, for most readers, the findings will arm them with the information they need to save a struggling relationship or strengthen a good one, giving them a specific prescription to boost the health of the most profound relationship of their lives.

Saving or improving your marriage is worth the effort. Research shows that couples in stable relationships have more sex, more money, and live longer, healthier lives. Whether you are content in a long, stable relationship, in the idealistic throes of early romantic love, or leaving a failed marriage in hopes of doing better next time around, the scientific study of marriage has put the secrets of long term love and happiness within your grasp.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Great Book For Couple

    I would recommend this book for couples when they hit that rough patch. It has invaluable insight to what happens in a marriage. I think that couples need to also look at what issues they bring into that marriage. For that, I recommend, "When God Stopped Keeping Score..."

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