One of the perks of being a journalist is that it can give professional license to explore subjects of personal interest and to knock on doors closed to most people -- all in the course of doing your job.
Author Tara Parker-Pope has made the most of that opportunity with her excellent new book, "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage."
Parker-Pope, who writes about health in her Well blog for the New York Times, said she became interested in the science of marriage when her own 17-year union began to founder.
She sought help in making sense of the situation but was put off by the platitudes she found in self-help books. "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," she writes.
As she ventured into scientific databases, she was surprised to discover a large body of research on marriage and relationships that offered practical advice about marital health. She said she realized that basic scientific truths she uncovered could have helped her see the signs of trouble earlier in her marriage.
In "For Better," Parker-Pope seeks to help other people make better choices and save or strengthen their own relationships. Her passion for the subject creates a driving momentum that propels the reader through the book as she attempts to answer the question, "What makes a good marriage?"
Though now divorced, Parker-Pope is a strong proponent of marriage and offers evidence that couples in stable relationships are healthier and wealthier and have more sex than the unmarried.
She also makes the case that the institution of marriage today is stronger than we think. She argues that misleading statistics have led to the common belief that half of marriages today end in divorce. The significance of this misconception, she says, is that it can be self-fulfilling. Believe that you are more likely to get divorced and your chances of doing so may increase.
As she examines the science of long-term relationships from courtship through commitment, Parker-Pope skillfully weaves together research findings, relationship advice and personal reflections. She covers topics that include the science of marriage and sex, health, conflict, parenting, money and gender roles. She offers interactive quizzes to help readers determine their love styles (romantic, best friends, logical, playful, possessive or unselfish) and how well they know their partners.
Parker-Pope looks at the housework gap between men and women and shows that sloppy men may have an excuse: Men's brains may make them less likely to register details such as clothes scattered on the floor. She discusses research on gay and lesbian relationships and what it can teach heterosexual couples about fighting styles, gender roles and peer marriages.
What are the take-aways? Parker-Pope comes through with seven strategies she says successful couples use to stay happy and keep their marriages strong. No. 1 is to celebrate good news, no matter how mundane. Another key point is to keep a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. So, in other words, for every complaint, criticism or failing in your relationship, make sure there are five compliments, hugs or kind gestures.
Come to think of it, that sounds like good advice for keeping any relationship strong.
-- Anne Colby
Photo: "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage," Tara Parker-Pope, Dutton, $25.95