In her book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, Tara Parker Pope explores the scientific evidence that explains why some couples succeed and others fail. Here, she discusses why conflict is healthy, why boredom is a marriage-killer and what to look for in a mate.
You've mentioned the "drip, drip of negativity" that can erode a couple's relationship and health. What does that mean?
There was a lot of research that suggested people who were married were healthier than the unmarried. But there's a shift now showing a bad marriage with constant stress and negativity and unhappiness is really detrimental to your health. When a conflict discussion lacks warmth -- words like "honey" or a pat on the shoulder -- it takes a much larger toll on a woman's heart. Battles for control are particularly bad for men. It's OK to fight, but remember you love this person -- you don't want to do things that not only hurt the marriage, but also hurt someone's health, like accusations, swearing, hostility, lack of warmth. They all create an emotional climate that can lead to health problems over time.
What are the key predictors that a couple will stay together?
When couples talk about their lives together, using pronouns like "we" or "us" suggests a level of connectedness. Having an argument and saying "we need to work this out" is very different than saying "you need to fix this." Feeling bored can also predict divorce, so couples need to focus on doing new and interesting things together. One word that often comes up when couples are having trouble is that they're just not "compatible." This is often a couple that shares a house, children, pets, friends and common interests that brought them together. That compatibility complaint is a red flag and it comes up when couples are searching for a way to express dissatisfaction. But it's not really about whether you both like skiing and flea markets; it's about your level of connectedness.
Do you gain any insight into whether a happy marriage is a question of finding the right match, or are there individuals who are just more functional in relationships?
There are things that predict a more stable partner. Having divorce in your family, marrying at a young age, marrying someone of a completely different religion or who has completely different ideas about money make a relationship more likely to fail. A volatile courtship is going to predict a volatile marriage. If you're not madly in love during courtship, it's not going to happen in marriage. If you don't have a great sex life, it's not going to get better with marriage. If you're unsure about your partner, there's nothing to suggest you become more sure after you get married. It's pretty logical stuff. People make the mistake of assuming things get better after marriage, but partners don't fundamentally change. When you talk to both people who are divorced and people who are long married, you hear the same thing: "I knew." You have to listen to your instincts.
A lot of people talk about marriage being hard work. Is that true even for very happy couples?
It's an interesting notion, because marriage is getting stronger and there are fewer divorces. It seems clear that we have higher expectations for marriage than we did 50 years ago and the stakes are higher. Marriage feels like a lot of work, but I ask people if they also feel like their friendships and children are work. Even friendships need to be maintained and tended to. Marriages need the same care other relationships need and you can't take them for granted. They're labours of love.
Marriage is ultimately a pretty pragmatic institution with a lot of mundane chores that interfere with passion.
It's true, and I think sometimes remembering the practical stuff -- like dividing the chores, managing money -- can get short shrift because we think marriage is all about the love. Getting a handle on your finances goes very far in helping the stability of your marriage. So many couple conflicts happen over the division of labour in the home and a lot of resentment can build up -- particularly for women who are working outside the home and feel an unfair burden.
Your own marriage came to an end before you started work on this book. If you knew then what you know now, do you think you could have saved it?
There's a lot of information I wish I'd had then. Would it have made a difference? I don't know. But going forward, it's made a difference. My marriage could have benefitted from more conflict. We had a very quiet, stable, easy relationship and rarely argued. Maybe if we had more information, we could have had a different outcome.
What advice do you have for women who are looking for a mate?
You ultimately know who makes you happy. The good marriages tend to be between people who are truly paying attention to each other, who celebrate each other's achievements, who are nice more than they are negative, who want to deescalate arguments, who have similar values about money and family and who share the domestic and emotional burdens. I don't know that science has taught us how to meet the right person. My personal advice is don't focus so much on meeting the right person, but on filling your life with interesting people and things. That often leads you down a good path.