288 pages | Buy the book
Can this marriage be saved? Can this book be stomached? The answer to both questions, it turns out, is yes: Tara Parker-Pope has written what may be the most credible and interesting marital self-help book of all time. Take that, John Gray!
What’s the Big Deal?
Parker-Pope isn’t a doctor, but she plays one on The New York Times’s Web site, and here she’s moonlighting as a sort of marriage counselor. But instead of platitudes about caring and sharing, she makes her arguments with the durable evidence of scientific studies. This makes for a book that is both trustworthy (you know where her theories come from) and entertaining (did you know it’s a documented fact that among gay couples, partners share housework equally? Honey? Did you know that?).
Buzz Rating: Rumble
One-Breath Author Bio
This is Parker-Pope’s first book, but you’ve almost certainly already read something by her on the wildly popular Well blog.
The Book, in Her Words
“It’s now possible to deconstruct a marriage down to its most basic parts and predict, with surprising accuracy, the likelihood that a marriage will survive or end in divorce ... The findings can be translated into surprisingly practical advice for couples” (page 2).
Judging by the Cover
Yes, it’s a book about the psychology of marriage, but you can read it on the subway without fear of embarrassment. The cover is high class and smart: a wedding ring beautifully shot and divided like a pie chart. There’s not a dab of pink anywhere on it.
Don’t Miss These Bits
The most touching part of the book is buried in the introduction, where Parker-Pope admits her motivations: “When my own seventeen-year marriage began to crumble, I found myself struggling to make sense of it ... 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” (page 4). If you find this to be powerfully humanizing—who hasn’t looked for clear-cut explanations in times of crisis?—be sure to have tissues handy for pages 251–52, in which Parker-Pope flashes back to her wedding, when she walked down the aisle to two refrains: Pachelbel’s “Canon” and a constant nagging thought of “Are we doing the right thing?”
Parker-Pope also offers an amusing list of sexual statistics (pages 81–82), including the following: “About 15 percent of adults are having half of all sexual encounters.” “People who are Jewish or agnostic have 20 percent more sex than their Christian counterparts.” “People who work the longest hours are the most likely to be having sex.” “Jazz lovers are 30 percent more sexually active than other people.”
And here’s one more figure that should just be quoted flat out: “For women, getting married results in a 70 percent surge in the amount of time she spends on housework. By contrast, men spend about 12 percent less time on household chores after they marry.” Honey? Are you still reading?
Swipe This Critique
Really? Another book for the overeducated upper class about how to tidy up and hermetically seal your marriage? What happened to the idea that love is supposed to be good, messy fun? This is essentially the criticism that Slate leveled at the book. (Parker-Pope “says that if you fight the wrong way—without using any terms of endearment while arguing—you’re going to have a heart attack and die. Fight the wrong way? Now, I have to worry about that?”) But there’s an easy refutation to this argument: read the book’s title. It’s about the science of a good marriage, not a perfect one. Messiness is still allowed. And, Parker-Pope admits, it is actually unavoidable.
See above. It would be interesting to invite modern-day marriage studiers Sandra Tsing Loh, Jill Lepore, Elizabeth Weil, Caitlin Flanagan, and Elizabeth Gilbert over for cocktails, with their respective spouses and exes, just to see what happens after the third martini.
Another sex stat! This one won’t do a thing to help your marriage, other than perhaps let you impress your spouse over dinner: “There are an estimated 11,250 deaths related to sex in the U.S. each year” (page 82).
Prose: As in the Well blog, the writing is simple and straightforward but respectful of readers’ intelligence. If you want to know how prolactin levels affect your love life, you’ll find out here. If you don’t know what prolactin is, you’ll find that out, too.
Insight: Can you learn more about marriage from this book than you can from, say, Jane Austen? Probably not. But that isn’t a fair comparison. Here it’s more stats, less emotion.
Miscellaneous: In her chapter on children, Parker-Pope notes that kids benefit when their parents have stable relationships. Then: “It is deceptively simple advice but decidedly hard to implement.” That’s probably true of everything in the book, but you can’t blame Parker-Pope for the fact that marriage isn’t easy.