Book review: 'For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage,' by Tara Parker-Pope

By Carolyn See
Friday, May 7, 2010


The Science of a Good Marriage

By Tara Parker-Pope

Dutton. 356 pp. $25.95

This book would seem to be an overview of social-scientific articles from the recent past, examining what components contribute to a good marriage -- or a bad one. Tara Parker-Pope sometimes writes about relationships in her column for the New York Times called "Well," and after her own marriage failed, she decided to investigate "the science of a good marriage."

She gets off to a shaky -- if amusing -- start as she discusses monogamy, or the lack of it, in animals. "Only a tiny percentage of creatures appear to mate for life," she writes. "Adultery is rampant. Given the evidence, it's reasonable for any couple beginning a marriage or struggling to keep one together to ask, 'Are we really meant to spend our life with just one person?' "

She begins this discussion with lobsters. Hearing that lobsters are monogamous, she confides to the reader, "In my view, any creature that was so evolved as to be monogamous didn't deserve to end up on my dinner plate, so I actually stopped eating lobster." Her imagination runs a little bit wild around this question, and she begins to endow her fellow creatures with complex and shady inner lives. "Many animals cheat on their partners," she tells us, as if black-capped chickadees or marmosets were the moral equivalent of Madame Bovary.

Barn swallows form "adulterous liaisons" with birds that sport longer tails, and "it's not just the birds that are promiscuous. . . . Marmosets routinely step out on their mates. . . . Among mammals, the idealized relationship of sexually faithful mates raising offspring together is rare." And, in a recent study, she writes, a female California "spouse mouse" allowed an "unfamiliar male to mount, even when her partner was present. Whether this is really a fair test of her fidelity isn't clear."

It goes on like this for quite a while, with talk of mice "defending the honor" of their partners, and "philandering voles," and so on. But I must admit I got a little worried. This is supposed to be an overview of various scientific studies about human marriage. (We can gather this by the appearance of the word "science" in the subtitle.) And yet, before we even get fairly started, we are invited to believe in a world of seedy lobster boardinghouses with slatternly lady lobsters in satin slips giving their lobster lovers the go-ahead. Or marmosets "stepping out," but probably stopping to get their shoes shined and puffing negligently on marmoset-cigars. I hate to be the one to tell this woman that voles don't entertain thoughts of adultery, nor do they defend a lady vole's honor, nor do they "philander," because voles don't commit adultery, and they don't have honor. They're voles!

After examining animal sex, Parker-Pope goes on to the human kind. We're forever preening and flirting, she says. "Even the seemingly endless trips women make to the restroom are part of the ritual, and represent nothing less than a promenade during which a woman demonstrates her interest in a man while putting her own sexual availability and reproductive fitness on display. . . . During the walk to the bathroom a woman may swing her hips, cast a coy glance, lick her lips, twirl a strand of hair, and toss her head."

What a world we live in. To be fair to the author, many of the studies she records here must have been pretty wacky in the first place. Later, in the pages devoted to housekeeping, the author dredges up a study that states that men who help out around the house can expect to have sex one more time a month than men who don't help. This has kindled a lively series of discussions in our own family on the subject: Is all that house work worth it? The sex had better be pretty good.

But the author, bless her heart, appears to be an utterly earnest advocate of this activity: "While sex is a difficult issue in many marriages, it is also a highly effective way to solve problems and repair the daily missteps and grievances that occur in a relationship." She is also the bearer of mind-blowing news: "In one 1981 study, researchers interviewed fifty married couples, most of whom were happily married and reported good sex lives. But men and women reported very different reasons for initiating sex. Women said they were seeking 'love, intimacy, and holding.' Men said they wanted sex for sexual release."

So, it's really not the author's fault -- if that's even the right word -- for retailing such kooky non-knowledge in this little book. It's the social scientists, who sit around labs watching voles with a prurient, eagle eye; it's the social scientist, again, who went around pestering men in 1981, asking them, "What makes you want to initiate sex?" What we end up with here, in a sense, is a compendium of Old Journalists' Tales. A scientist releases a study, a journalist makes a magazine piece out of it, another journalist reads that piece and writes about it again, and then it gets written for a newspaper and presto! We have the "Gatekeeper Wife," who won't let her husband load the dishwasher. I've read about this phenomenon many, many times, but never seen it in real life, probably because it's as rare as voles committing adultery.

We also learn here that men like to make more money than women in a marriage, and that marriage is good for your health: "Relationships also offer practical support -- friends, family, and spouses can . . . pick up a prescription, or take you to the doctor, and care for you as you as you recover from an illness."

Financially speaking, "Debt is a biggie," so you should think twice if your spouse-to-be has some. But remember, while you're weighing this, that a married person gets survival benefits and lower insurance rates.

Call me crazy, but I don't think these pros or cons will keep any reader from the altar, or drag them in the altar's direction either. Or that rolling your eyes will actually hasten your divorce. Reading this book, in fact, and taking the tests included therein may -- one extra time a month -- tease a smile to the grumpiest face. Studies show it! And studies could never be wrong.

See reviews regularly for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Sebastian Junger looks war in the face.

-- A new history of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

-- Hank Aaron's long-delayed honor.

-- Why America will emerge stronger from the financial crisis.

-- And all aboard the lunatic ex press!

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