Thursday, June 3, 2010


Today's post comes from AOL. I thought this was kind of a neat article, so I wanted to share it with you all. Enjoy!!!

The Scientific Secret to a Good Marriage

"In the most Spartan of terms, the secret to a good marriage might simply be to love the one you're with. And there are even loads of science to back that up. In her new 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. Turns out marriage isn't quite what most of us probably think it is: 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. AOL Health picked Parker-Pope's brain about the factual, not fluffy, answers to what makes relationships work.

AOL Health: Who knew there was so much research -- real scientific studies -- about marriage? How is science able to predict a good marriage?

Tara Parker-Pope: I think you have to start to answer that question with the caveat that love does remain a mystery, and there are many marriages and relationships that people don't understand. But when you look at a marriage through the prism of science, and when you look at marriage in large groups of people, you're able to see patterns and habits and problems and different issues.

Someone once asked me, "Aren't you taking the romance out of love and out of marriage if you're talking about it from a scientific point of view?" And I think exactly the opposite. I think it's incredibly exciting to think that science has information and answers for us that can improve our relationships and help us forge better ones. I love the fact that there's some evidence-based advice out there and that 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.

AOL Health: Is there some evidence-based advice for how to make a marriage better?

TPP: What marriage researchers see consistently is that 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.

AOL Health: Research seems to show that 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.

AOL Health: What if you want to increase your frequency?

TPP: I've actually heard from thousands of readers who have talked about being in a no-sex or a low-sex marriage, and that 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. In the last chapter of the book, it's one of the main pieces of advice in terms of a prescription for marital happiness. Focusing on your sex life is not just something enjoyable, it's truly good for your marriage, for your relationship.

AOL Health: 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.

AOL Health: Speaking of divorce, what's the deal with the 50 percent divorce rate? Where does that number come from, and why do we think divorce is more common than it is?

TPP: I think it's a lot more interesting to talk about crises. It's easy to talk about a crisis in the American family than to say we're all doing a pretty good job. As journalists we make that mistake, I think researchers have that problem because it's a lot easier to get a grant if you're studying the problem than if everything is just fine. In fact, it's impossible to get a grant if everything is just fine.

Part of it is that we have the most data on divorce and marriage from a generation of couples married in the 1970s. And they do appear to be headed for a 50 percent divorce rate. The 30-year divorce rate is about 47 percent. But what we've seen over time is that couples getting married more recently, in the last 10 to 20 years, have much lower rates of divorce. If you look at the divorce rate per thousand married couples, you see a decline. In general, people are waiting longer to get married, but when they do marry, the relationships seem to be stronger, because divorce is getting less common.

It's reassuring. I talk to so many young people today who say, "Oh, I don't want to get married, because everybody gets divorced," and I think exaggerating this statistic is harmful. We need to start talking about the facts about marriage, and the truth is that a lot of couples are doing a good job -- they are working hard at marriage. And if you are getting married today, you have a greater chance of staying married than getting divorced. These are the simple facts.

AOL Health: 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.

AOL Health: When you argue with your spouse, research shows the first three minutes of an argument matter most. Why is that?

TPP: That's out of the Gottman lab. So much of what predicts a relationship [outcome] is the way a fight begins. I think this is actually great news for couples, because it means 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. And that's a shorter trip to take than ending all conflict.

I once asked a researcher, "What's a common mistake that couples make?" And she said, "I think that more people need to accept a little bit of conflict in their marriage." And that's tough. I mean, I hate conflict, but the advice she gives and that many, many researchers who study married couples say is that if you learn how to fight fairly, conflict is really good for the relationship. A little bit on 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.

AOL Health: What about the last three minutes of a fight? Is it important how an argument ends?

TPP: Arguments don't really end. That's what's sort of shocking: 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 mother-in-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.

AOL Health: The book ends with seven strategies couples can use to stay happy and keep their marriages strong. Of those, are there two or three you think are most important or make the biggest difference?

TPP: I like all of them so much. My general view of the science is that it really does support the idea that 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. "

1 comment:

Kel said...

interesting article.

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