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A Chemistry Set For 'The Science Of A Good Marriage'

Are you married? If so, how did you meet? According to Tara Parker-Pope, the way you recount this story reveals a lot about the state of your union. If you recall your first date affectionately, chances are, your marriage is strong. But if your tale is tinged with bitterness? You're probably in trouble.

This isn't Parker-Pope's opinion: It's based on a scientific study.

Her new book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, is a compendium of such research. Good marriages, she argues, are good for us -- and science can help us achieve them. Drawing upon fields from neuroscience to sociology, her book offers prescriptions "for marital health" -- practical strategies to help couples improve their relationship.

Parker-Pope paints a statistical portrait of marriage today. Some of her findings are surprising: Divorce rates in America are actually dropping. Conflict is good, even vital, for couples. Married people have more sex than anyone. And the more financially independent women are, the more likely they are to stay married.

When it comes to problems, debt and children are obvious culprits -- but so is rolling your eyes at your spouse. So is using the pronoun "you" instead of "we."

For Better is half myth-buster, half self-help. It's a cleanly written, serviceable book that can be useful for couples -- or even singles contemplating the plunge.

Yet as a read, it leaves something to be desired. To be fair, I approached For Better with the same lofty expectations many of us bring to marriage itself. I love the idea that there’s a science to marriage. And so, I yearned to be swept away by this book -- intellectually turned-on. As with a great romance, I wanted fireworks.

Instead, I got the publishing equivalent of a nice robe and slippers. Well-crafted, comforting, helpful -- yes. For Better is a good gift for the lovelorn. But while there's illuminating research in it -- especially comparing gay and straight marriages -- there's also plenty of stuff, frankly, I've heard before. Its quizzes could have come straight from a magazine.

For Better, in short, could be better. Its potential isn't fully realized. Marriage has undergone radical changes in America. In the 19th century, women legally became non-people the moment they tied the knot. Once married, they were prohibited from keeping their own money and property, signing contracts or filing lawsuits. Their husbands often had the right to abuse them. In fact, spousal rape wasn’t outlawed in all 50 states until 1993. Yet Parker-Pope only notes that marriage used to be an economic and social contract not based on love. She focuses on the science of marriage but ignores its evolution -- and her book is flimsier for it.

And, while she celebrates today's egalitarian ideal of marriage, her research poses some interesting challenges to this. Men's and women's brains are wired differently, she claims, and we're biologically predisposed to certain gender roles. If so, are truly equal partnerships possible? Is biology destiny after all?

In the end, I wanted For Better to go beyond factoids and marital aids to become a deeper, more provocative read. Maybe I'm asking too much -- or seeking a different book entirely. But For Better urges couples to insist on high standards. And for better or worse, I've followed its advice.

Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is the memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. She is the author of the best-selling Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.