For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. By Tara Parker-Pope. Dutton. $25.95.
Distinguished from typical self-help books by its penchant for research and insistence that marriage partners ask and answer similar questions – and then compare their responses – For Better is a well-written and impressively analytical look at an intimate relationship in which everyone thinks, “My situation is different,” while scientists and other researchers say, “No, it isn’t.”
Getting over the “my situation is different” hurdle is the hardest part about getting into this book, whose author is a New York Times columnist and blogger (and formerly wrote for The Wall Street Journal). Herself divorced after a 17-year marriage, Tara Parker-Pope is not naïve about this form of coupling and does not have her head in the romantic or societally sanctioned clouds. This lets her produce a book that is both plainspoken and filled with research-backed good sense. Despite the work’s optimistic title, only the first of Parker-Pope’s three sections is actually called “For Better.” The second is entitled “For Worse (But You Want It to Be Better)” and the third is “From This Day Forward,” being intended to help couples apply what they learn in the first two sections.
Parker-Pope tackles all the main elements of marriage: commitment, attraction, sex, illness, parenting, conflict, household chores, money and more. Her basic approach is to discuss research in a given field and then suggest ways for couples to apply it. For example, she cites a 1981 study of 50 married couples’ sex lives and the different reasons men and women reported for initiating sex. Then she presents one of her many “For Better quiz” segments, asking partners to write down five things each would like the other to say or do during sex – and then compare answers. Parker-Pope cannot know how closely readers’ responses will compare, of course, but she can show what happened when researchers asked similar questions: husbands wanted their wives to be more seductive, initiate sex more often, be more experimental, be sexier and give more instructions; wives wanted their husbands to talk more lovingly, be more seductive, be more experimental, give more instructions and be warmer and more involved. That is, three of the five responses were the same, although not in the identical order – indicating that in the bedroom, men and women seem to want many of the same things. Yet the two differing responses were significant, since men focused more on sex apart from the rest of life and women tended to place it in a broader context . Couples can use this research as a jumping-off point to analyze their own responses – and if they feel this particular test is not helpful in their situation, they can ignore it and try plenty of others.
Parker-Pope spends some time on the issue of mutual perception – how two people can see the same event very differently, not only in terms of their own personalities but also in terms of the strength of their marriage. This is an especially useful element of self-analysis, as Parker-Pope shows how happier couples tend to discuss hard times in their relationships in a more positive light: a wife says her future husband’s apartment was “a wreck…definitely a bachelor pad,” or says it was “disgusting – even back then, he was a complete slob.” Thus, a series of questions about how partners met can be very significant, since it shows their current perceptions of the earliest, most romantic time of the relationship: “What were your first impressions? …Was it an easy or difficult decision [to get married]? …What moments stand out as really good times in your marriage? What moments stand out as the really hard times?” The answers to questions like these matter, says Parker-Pope, because “we end up recasting history to reflect our current state of discontent.”
So, what to do with all the research, all the tests, all the questions? It is one thing for Parker-Pope to point out studies showing that “in stable marriages, there are at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones,” and quite another for people to make use of the mathematical data and analyses. Indeed, the three chapters in Parker-Pope’s concluding section are her weakest, because even though they include reasonable ideas from a researcher’s point of view, there is no focus on how hard it can be to implement those ideas in daily life. “Keep your standards high.” “Pay attention to family and friends.” “Don’t expect your spouse to make you happy.” “Reignite romance.” Well, yes. And yes, yes and yes. But what to do in the real world? Parker-Pope sometimes seems well aware of the disconnect between these lofty ideals and everyday life – at one point, she offers “The lesson: Forget the lesson. Put down this book and go have sex with your husband or wife.” Cute – but what time of day is it? Where are the kids? How are matters of health and hygiene? What stressors are intolerable at the moment? The person reading For Better may be only too willing to toss the book aside for a bedroom break, but the other spouse may at that time be somewhere entirely different, mentally or emotionally if not physically. This is certainly not Parker-Pope’s fault: it would be worse if she came to no conclusions and made no recommendations after all her research than it is for her to come up with thoughts that are longer on idealism than on practicality. The reality is that marriage only works if it is for better and (not “or”) for worse. And despite her book’s title, Parker-Pope’s studies (not to mention her own experience) indicate that she knows this. So her ideas about keeping things in the “for better” column are best viewed as ideals worth striving for – not prescriptions that must be followed lest hard marital times inevitably loom.