For Better summarizes many different studies about marriage, organized around the general optimistic theme that divorce is much less likely than it was in the recent past and that a bit of attention to one’s own marriage can make a big difference. Or can it? It’s rather unsettling to hear that properly trained strangers can accurately peg the likelihood of a marriage working out or not via a short observation of the partners at the beginning of the relationship. Maybe we should all submit to that little test before we say “I do”.
Some of the scientific findings are amusing, such as the idea that potential partners who smell better to us have complementary immune systems — useful for the potential babies we might make, huh? Others are annoying, such as the repeated recitation that women discourage husbands from “helping” to retain control of the household. I, for one, am very happy to share (give up!) control over the dishwasher, trashcans, or dirty laundry. Most are unremakable: pick someone compatible (duh!), share the housework, hang out with friends who don’t divorce, wait out the stressful parenting years (getting there) and try to remember only the happy moments. Nothing new, really.
For instance, while monogamy is not the norm among animals, it’s certainly possible for some animals and for humans to remain sexually and socially faithful to one partner. Further, regular sex should be part of a good marriage even if it occurs less frequently over time. As for conflict, learning how to fight fairly allows partners to air differences without damaging their relationship. Describing the unhappy end of her own marriage, she looks at those relationships at high risk for divorce, such as the pursuer-distancer marriage (with the pursuer usually the woman) and the operatic marriage (characterized by dramatic highs and lows). Although the scientific research adds depth, much of the relationship advice is familiar and commonsensical, but married couples will still benefit from this refresher course