In her book, “For Better: the Science of a Good Marriage,” author and health journalist Tara Parker-Pope applies rigorous research to the big things in a relationship — sex, money, kids, fighting — and more interestingly to the (seemingly) small things — housework, snoring, eye rolling, even the way couples retell the story of how they met.
Wed couples are actually having more sex than anyone, conflict can be a good thing and more than 50 percent of us are staying married.
Tara Parker-Pope: People can study couples and see patterns that can predict a better marriage or a problem in a marriage and we can learn from it.
Is there some evidence- based advice for how to make a marriage better? TPP: Successful couples that register high on marital happiness scales understand that small things do matter. [Researchers] see that how couples manage conflict, how they start and end a fight, and the positive things they do matter almost more than the negatives. Do they celebrate the small victories that life hands them? Do you grunt and say, “Oh that’s nice honey,” or do you say, “You got a raise today? That’s terrific; let’s go celebrate.” Those little things, we often take for granted as couples. We think the stuff that matters is the big fight or the conflict we’re having, and I don’t think we appreciate how much the kiss good-bye in the morning, or the pat on back or holding a partner’s hand [matters]. For some reason, we think that kind of stuff doesn’t count, and the research shows that kind of thing counts a whole lot in a good marriage.
Sex counts — the more often couples have sex, the happier the marriage. How can couples have more sex? TPP: Well, it’s pretty specific to a couple. Remember that line from “Annie Hall” when the therapist says to Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in separate meetings, “Well how often do you have sex?” And she says, “Oh, constantly, three times a week,” and he says, “Hardly ever, three times a week.” And that sort of tells you, if it works for you, then it works. If it doesn’t work for you, then it’s not enough. But overall, it’s important for a married couple to know that it’s normal for sex to decline in a marriage. You’re still having more sex than a single person; there’s definitely a correlation between the couple’s satisfaction with their sex life and their satisfaction with the marriage. So frequency is definitely associated with a happier relationship, but it doesn’t have to be frequency. It’s just whether or not you’re both satisfied with the amount of sex that’s in the relationship.
No-sex or a low-sex marriage, is really a difficult problem for couples. There’s a big loss, an emotional loss when your sex life goes away in a marriage, and it’s a tough thing to repair. One of the pieces of advice that Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who really knows a lot about love research, gives couples is that if you are having problems, have sex — even if don’t feel like it. Because just the act of having sex unlocks a lot of these bonding hormones and brain chemicals. It is a shortcut, in a way, for restoring intimacy and getting over bad times in a relationship. Even if you don’t feel like it, once you get started, you do feel like it because biology sort of takes over. Sex is pretty essential. Focusing on your sex life is not just something enjoyable, it’s truly good for your marriage, for your relationship.
The book says that simple interactions, like rolling your eyes at your husband, can indicate you’re headed for divorce. How can such a simple thing be such a strong indicator? TPP: There’s a noted marriage researcher named John Gottman, and he has watched a lot of couples have conflict discussions, and he has these very sophisticated computer analysis programs and heart rate monitors and different ways to assess the state of your relationship, and he’s quite skilled at this. And, unfortunately, we can’t all go to his lab, so I asked him what can we look for. He said one of the really simple things to look for is the eye roll. Because it’s a sign of contempt, it’s a sign that your relationship has gone to a place that is not good. Couples that do this in his studies have consistently had bad outcomes. It’s a simple thing to look at, and it’s a relatively easy thing to stop. If you’re an eye roller, and if you’re on the receiving end of it, it’s legitimate to say to your partner, “I wish you wouldn’t do that. It doesn’t make me feel good, and can we work on this issue?.” You’re dismissing what the other person is saying. It’s a behavior we typically wouldn’t even do to our friends, but you do see it in married couples. Again, it’s one of the many little things that goes on that can be a big deal over time in a relationship.
If you feel you’re at risk for divorce, is it possible to get the marriage back on track? TPP: There’s a lot of psychology that would suggest that [fun] is what brought you together in first place, and what keeps you together long term. There is some science out of Stony Brook University suggesting that rediscovering some of those early behaviors and doing new and different things together as a couple improves your marital happiness. I do think that once a couple starts talking about divorce and thinking about divorce, being divorced is a real possibility. [Once you are] discussing divorce with friends and people outside the marriage, you are pretty far down a path, a not so good path. That doesn’t mean that you can’t turn around, but I think it’s pretty good advice to not use the D word lightly. There’s some research to suggest that once you start talking about divorce, it will create change.
Regarding fights. You don’t have to worry about what you’re fighting about or how often you fight. Really you just have to think, “Okay, if I want to protect my relationship, I need to make sure that I start the fight correctly, that I don’t let it escalate and that I learn how to de-escalate.” I think that de-escalation thing is a skill we can all use. The ability to de-escalate, to take a breath and to calm things down is just a good skill to have, especially for people in a marriage. So couples don’t have to go from fighting a lot to not fighting at all to improve their marriages — you just have to go from fighting however you’re fighting now to fighting better, to fighting more fairly.
Conflict is really good for the relationship. Conflict is moving you toward a better place, because you’re working things out. When you don’t work those things out, they catch up with you. So a little bit of conflict, a little bit of fair fighting, productive conflict, goes a long way.
Seventy percent of marital conflicts never get resolved. They bring these couples into the lab, and they listen to them fight about the dog or the mother-in-law or the socks on the floor, and 10 years later they’re still fighting about the dog — it might be a different dog — but the socks on the floor or the motherin- law, they’re still fighting. Thirty percent of conflicts do get resolved, and you figure things out, and people learn to adjust and compromise. Personally, what I think these data suggest is that 70 percent of the stuff we fight about doesn’t matter. It’s there; it’s part of having a relationship, but it’s kind of irrelevant. The most important thing is you don’t beat each other up if you’re disagreeing. Be nice. You can be nice and still fight.
The book ends with seven strategies couples can use to stay happy and keep their marriages strong. TPP: The small, kind things we do in a marriage matter a lot. There are many different ways to look at this. But being nice to your partner is really the best way to take care of your marriage. It’s such a simple piece of advice, but how often have we heard couples just rip each other up, and how often have we done it ourselves? And I think these small things, like celebrating the good times and making a fuss over the small victories that life hands you, help you sustain a better relationship, not letting your marriage get boring and doing new and exciting things. You’re not only creating novelty and reactivating that kind of crazy love you had at the very beginning, but you’re creating other experiences, and all of that is good for a marriage. And I do think sex is such an easy shortcut. That’s not all it takes, but that’s a simple one. I think remembering that everything you do, not just the big blowup, signals the health of your relationship. It’s those little things you do every day that hold you together.