APW Book Club—For Better, The Discussion

{APW book club photo by Christy of Moodeous Photography}

For the most recent APW book club, we read For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, by Tara Parker-Pope. This was the first time I’d gone with a book club pick that I hadn’t yet read (after a wonderfully democratic voting process), and that was perhaps an error. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t have picked it as a good APW match if I’d read it. As we discussed in yesterday’s book club round up, there were problems. Correlation does not,  in fact, equal causation; egalitarian marriages are very possible; and gay couples are not a brand new development to be studied, even if gay marriage in the US is just now becoming legal (but thanks for playing, researchers). But, what are you going to do?

{Emily‘s not so sure about the book, by Allison Andres Photography}

So, I thought I’d dive in with a list of awesome things I’ve learned, and let us discuss the good and the bad of the book in the comments.

Things I Learned:

  • Women can sniff out immune system genes called ‘major histocompatibility complex’ or MHC. Women think partners with very different MHC to their own smell delicious. But! Hormonal birth control screws up our ability to sniff out compatible mates, so researchers think ladies looking for a partner to pro-create with should maybe get off the pill. I realized I was off the pill when David and I got together, and was oddly relived. Men? Well, they can sniff out fertility. Ofcoursetheycan. (p. 54)
  • Don’t show (or f*ck, feel!) contempt for your partner. While lots of book clubs had a problem with the idea that eye rolling is a negative (p. 136), I generally agreed that dismissive, in-anger eye rolling, along with other signs of personal contempt—attacking your partner personally, cursing at them, calling them names, can lead to huge problems. I was reminded that relationships work best when built on a foundation of respect, and that I should go out of my way to maintain that respect, even mid-fight. I might roll my eyes at David in jest, but I’m going to not roll them at him in seriousness.
  • In a related idea, it’s good to start arguments with a complaint “I wish we had sex more often,” than a criticism, “You never want to have sex. You’re always too tired. What’s happened to you?” And you definitely don’t want to start off with contempt or sarcasm “Everyone you know has a sh*tty idea of what it means to pleasure their wife, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that you’re a failure at it too.” (p. 157). While these sound obvious when laid out in black and white, I know our lives would be better if we always remembered this rule. So, noted.
  • You can deescalate an argument with clarification phrases, non-threatening words, affirmations, and open-ended questions (p. 164).
  • The myth of compatibility (p. 153). I’m a big proponent of the idea that we work well together as a couple because A) We were a pretty good match in the first place (and made a good initial and rational decision to purse that), and B) We work hard at it, and have pretty realistic expectations. I like when research backs me up. Parker-Pope says, “The truth is, compatibility comes and goes, and there is no such thing as a couple who is compatible all the time. Good marriages aren’t about being compatible all the time. People in a good marriage know how to manage their differences.”
  • Particularly when there are kids in the equation, “A fair number of marital health researchers advocate quickie sex—just to keep your sex life going” (p. 174). Um. Noted.
  • Stop worrying about one thing or another ruining your life and marriage (see kids), “Research shows that marriage satisfaction is generally quite stable over the life course, with only modest changes.” Rad.
  • It broke my heart that most heterosexual men say that their wife is their best friend or only friend. ONLY FRIEND? Waaaah! After reading that section, David and I had a talk. I don’t consider David my best friend, or even my friend, exactly (maybe because once upon a time he was my best platonic friend, so I know the difference. And there is a difference). He’s my husband, he already has a role that’s full and rich and deep. Learning that marriages flourish when there is a strong outside community made me want to focus on building our community a bit more, and worry about my husband’s best-friend-ness a bit less.
  • Celebrate good news. Remember when we went to Mexico when David got a job? Yeah. We should keep doing that, even if you substitute “crack open a bottle of champagne” with “go to Mexico.”

But, still, in sum? We read the wrong book. Sh*t. I’ll be picking up Spousanomics now, thanks ESB.

Now your turn. Discuss. And while there are plenty of problems in this book worth hashing over, let’s also discuss what we learned, either from the book, or just from thinking about the book. Because I’m a firm believer in the fact that while love is an awesome thing, you still need relationship SKILLS if you want to make it to any sort of finish line.

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  • I guess I’m in the minority. I didn’t hate the book but most of it was either common sense or hetero-/gender normal. I DID ask my bf to read the final chapter (which if you haven’t read the book and want to get an idea of what everyone is talking about without putting yourself through the whole thing is a good idea).

    I asked him to read it because there are somethings we can take from the book. Our sex drives aren’t exactly equal so I was digging the “just have sex” idea. I was also totally into the bit about how to have productive fights (we totally value talking things out with each other but sometimes it devolves into something lots less than productive).

    Will I make it my guide for my relationship? Nah. But my dad always told me that when it came to baseball/softball if I talked to someone and learned ONE thing even if I decided the rest was junk it was worth it; I think this is kind of like that…

  • Alia

    I feel like the points you’ve summarized here are pretty much the main ones I took away from the book as well. The rest of the book? Well, just kind of felt like marriage-related fluff. If anyone asked me what I thought of this book, I would probably print this post out, hand it to them, and tell them that it was everything they needed to know about the book.

  • Katie

    Yes! I saw Spousonomics on ESB and immediately thought of the APW book club. I’m all over that.

    • Zan

      Yes! This was my pick for book club so I bought a copy anyway. I am stoked to discuss it with APW!

  • jen

    Oh man, now I’m bummed i missed the Bay Area meetup, it looks like it was a lot of fun. :(

  • I didn’t have a huge problem with the book like it sounds like so many others did. And while it bothered me that the book was focused on hetero relationships, I blame the lack of research available on gay/lesbian relationships — which c’mon science, it’s time to get on that.

    I didn’t get the sense that the book was ever saying ‘this causes that,’ but instead was ‘here’s the data, and here’s how you can look at it.’ I guess the writing needed to be better if that didn’t come across strongly. And I wish the last chapter would have been the greater theme of the book — I felt like all those tips were good ones.

  • Also, here’s a question for everyone: Did you not like the book because it told you something that made you uncomfortable or didn’t want to hear? Or did you just not like the book?

    I ask because the times I felt myself not liking the book were the times when I was reading stuff that pointed out something I could improve on.

    • I wasn’t a huge fan of the book because I felt it was very kind of, I dunno, surface level. I mean, I know it was pretty much just about the research findings and I liked that idea a lot (that it’s just information and the reader can take away from it whatever they feel is strongest, as opposed to pushing a specific message) . . . but I didn’t find that there was anything that I could really sink my teeth into. I didn’t really feel that there was a lot of new information, and I felt that a lot of the quizzes were kind of common-sense (well of course it’s not going to end up good if you feel your partner always belittles you and your opinions! of course it’s not a good sign if you feel lonely in your relationship!) . . .

      That’s not to say that I didn’t take anything away from it. For example, I found the little section on sleep pretty interesting, as well as the health effects of keeping problems bottled up as opposed to sharing them with your partner.

    • meg

      I’d say both. Some times I found myself not liking parts and then realizing, “Oh, shit, I actually need to work on that.” (There were lots and lots of times the book backed up stuff we were doing as right, and I loved it then… so…)

      But then there was some super faulty correlation/causation arguments at the end. IE, if people who hire help often report lower levels of martial satisfaction, lets think that through. It’s probably NOT because of (the posited argument), couples miss spending time cleaning the bathroom together, but probably IS because couples with high stress jobs and impacted time are more likely to hire help, and their relationship is probably under stress for other (non-help related) reasons. In fact, hiring help probably relives some of their stress.

      • Anonymous For This

        Actually I liked that part. I hate cleaning. He feels its important that we do it ourselves. Chores used to be somewhat contentious. After finishing this book our joking mantra is, “couples who clean together are happier!”

        And the part about cleaning being foreplay? She wasn’t kidding.

    • The parts I didn’t want to hear were actually the parts of the book I LIKED. I’m all for hearing how people handle a particular problem I have, and hopefully some advice.

      As a whole, however, I hated it. Firstly, because I felt the ‘science” was dubious at best. But mostly, because it began to feel like Parker-Pope was saying “If you do THIS, your marriage is doomed. If you DON’T do this, your marriage is doomed. If you don’t pick up your socks, your marriage is doomed. If you have green eyes, your marriage is doomed. You can do you best to try and change it, but oh, guess what? Your marriage is doomed.”

      Clearly, this is an exaggeration. But that’s how it truely started to feel to me. Someone mentioned that it felt like Parker-Pope was trying to ease her guilt for her own divorce, and I’d agree. All in all, not the book for me.

      • I felt the same way about the “science.” But I thought it was probably me being unfair because I’m a chemist and usually think of any of the social sciences as pseudo science. (They’re really really important! And completely studious! Just not science. To me, anyway.)

    • ElfPuddle

      I thought too much of the studies presented were of the “evolutionary fairy tale”. (You have a gene for finding guys. No brain or heart involved.) I certainly believe biology explains much about me, but it doesn’t control me. I don’t think enough of that distinction was made (again, correlation doesn’t equal causation).

      Really, though, the parts of the book I didn’t like were the ones that seemed common sense. I’ve had so many behavior science/behavior psych classes in my umpteen years of college and teaching that I was horrified that an educated person like Parker-Pope felt she needed to say, “Don’t curse when you have an argument.” That’s the sort of thing I expect from bad pop psychiatrists and guidance counselors wrangling my less-than-socialized students. (And maybe people don’t know that sort of thing, and it needed to be said. That worries me.)

    • ka

      I was constantly asking myself this as I read! I’d only gotten about half done and some skimming for the meet up, but I finished it on the train home, and promptly freaked out about how our relationship looked a lot like the “doomed” old-fashioned model.

      And yea, were all the issues things we could technically “improve” on? Sure. But also issues that, once my resulting crankiness was discussed with my fiance, looked like huge overreactions, and a *classic* case of letting a media influence influence one’s thoughts and feelings on how things are and/or should be.

      And that, to me, is the danger of C*smo, and other writing/movie/anything that makes sweeping statements about what a relationship *should* look like, and what will or will not cause the “d” word. The thought of following that kind of advice makes me think of Oedipus, and how in trying so hard to avoid what he doesn’t want to happen (in this case, divorce), he causes it to happen.

      • Kaitlyn

        I love your Oedipus analogy! I see this “self-fulfilling prophecy” playing out constantly in my relationship (eg. Oh, you were afraid we wouldn’t talk as much once I started my new classes, so you started cutting calls short and being unpleasant to talk to? Time to back-track!) There’s no doubt in my mind that constant, pervasive fear of divorce would poison a relationship.

    • I think a big part of why I didn’t like this book was just that it needed an editor. I like reading about scientific studies and I am one to always come at studies like this with an eye towards whether two things are correlated or causal. I think the biggest problem with this book was just that it was about 100 pages too long. Near the end of the book I feel like much of what I was reading I kept thinking “didn’t I already read this?”

      • Carreg

        There is a chunk that’s repeated word for word, about three paragraphs long. Occurs once in the relevant chapter, once in the summary. So yeah you did already read it…

  • Ashley B

    I thought there were some useful nuggets in the book, that helped make me more aware of my own behavior in my relationship. Especially in the sections on fighting and housework. More importantly, it sparked some really interesting conversations in our household, and really has made me think about our relationship. There were definitely some flawed arguments in the book and sweeping generalizations, but I found it overall interesting (if a little dry). But I look forward to something a bit more stimulating for the next book club!

  • Kate

    Didn’t hate it, liked it a hell of a lot better than Bitch in the House for sure. Two good takeaways:

    – The debunking of the 50% divorce statistic–quite a relief.

    – The celebration advice. I liked that so much it recently inspired a gift to just-married friends–I picked some celebration-friendly things off their registry and explained my hope that they’ll have many small and large victories to celebrate together. It’s also informing my wedding date–not on the same weekend as anyone’s birthday! We need MORE occasions to celebrate, not fewer.

    • Other Katelyn

      My folks got married on my mom’s birthday, and I’ve always felt strongly about NOT making that a tradition. Come on! More parties, more fun.

    • I enjoyed the statistical debunking of the 50% thing as well. I’m probably going to start annoying everyone by correcting them every time they try to state it as fact.

      • Class of 1980

        I have pointed out the fallacy of the 50% divorce rate on here before. Different socioeconomic/educational level groups have different divorce rates. College grads have the lowest.

        But, I expect we will keep on hearing the 50% figure constantly touted, especially by people who hate the idea of marriage. Information is sometimes slow to become common knowledge.

        Then again, in previous decades the divorce rate used to be the same for all socioeconomic groups, so the fact that less educated people now have less stability in their lives for economic reasons is the real bad news of our time.

  • I completely felt relieved when I realized I wasn’t on the pill when me and my man met! I was freaked out, “what if I smelled him wrong? Oh wait, I wasn’t on the pill when we first met and I was really attracted to him. What a relief” A little taste of how the my brain went.

    Might I suggest that the author has a hang-over from previous generations where gender stereotypes were more confining? I thought of the book as an “older lady” (I tried to find Pope’s age but couldn’t) giving me advice from her prespective. I know my Mom would assume that I would do all the household chores too. We should be grateful we live in a time when we can find better partners!

    I also appreciated that it was based on science (be it Pope’s interpretation of science) rather than personal experience.

    • meg

      She pitched it that way for sure, but I also think that’s a total cop out. My parents are Parker-Popes age (if not older), and they have always had a totally egalitarian partnership marriage. My dad does all the cooking, my mom does all the plumbing. Hello! They came of age in the ’60s. The PIONEERED egalitarianism. We’re just following their lead.

      • Class of 1980

        Thank you for that.

        I’m 52. You’d be surprised how many women around my age don’t cook at all. I know so many couples where the husband does all the cooking.

        I know one divorced guy who is 56 and a huge cook. Going back to the 1980s and up to today, he says he can’t recall a single woman ever cooking a meal for him. Not his ex-wife and not any of the women he dated. LOL

        No one in my age group takes it for granted that women cook anymore.

        • which is funny because – despite growing up in a household where my father cooked almost every meal – i still feel like cooking for my family is directly related to my adequacy as a wife (or a woman, or a femme, before i was a wife). and i totally understand how that sounds, but that doesn’t change the fact.

          • Class of 1980

            I started out cooking a lot in my twenties, but gave it up afterward for various reasons, like an ex who was the world’s pickiest eater. We ate at restaurants a lot or did takeout.

            Now I am occasionally cooking more because I want to, but either way, I have zero guilt. ;)

            Most of the women I know who don’t cook, do tend to handle most of the housework, while their husbands do the cooking.

            I hate housework too though. Sigh.

    • ME TOO on the birth control.

      But I’m a (physical) scientist. And I’m always skeptical about the social science–and this made me more so.

      • Amanda

        Well, the MHC research was done in Switzerland, where I studied Biology, and this research was actually presented in a class , so it is not social science, it is actual ethology/evolution/inmunology. And for anyone out there who actually found their partner when they were ON the pill, there is relief because if I remember well the same research proved that when women are on it they tend to choose men that are more “alike” to their MHC, that was explained as having an evolutionary reason as they would choose to be near family members, because they would better help them during a time when they would need it (the pill simulates a “pregnancy ” state, kindof, to explain it easily).

        • Kaitlyn

          Yep yep, I’m in med school and we totally learn this stuff in Immunology class, and talk about it in Genetics. Also learned about it in Evolution in undergrad. Not all science can be purely physical, after all – at some point you have to put pills into real peoples bodies and see what actually happens, instead of looking at what happens in a glass vial! Clinical science is science, too.

  • Lauren

    I also didn’t hate the book. But, it was my first ‘marriage’ book, and I am still engaged in a hetero relationship, so that probably has something do with it.

    As with any research, I realize the research in this book isn’t the ‘end all, be all’, but it gives me something to chew on.

    One thing that I found interesting was the research that, biologically speaking, men often stay angrier longer than women. I’m always ‘over it’ so much quicker than my partner is, and I honestly thought it was because he was being petty or harboring a grudge. It is helpful to think about our different recovery time as a biological predisposition rather than a maturity issue.

    • I found the biology of fighting interesting as well. It’s interesting that people would even think to look at it in those terms.

    • Kaitlyn

      That’s so funny because *I* stay angrier must longer and I’m definitely rocking double X chromosomes. Then again, I also have long ring fingers, which is supposed to be masculine, and I was such a tomboy growing up. Perhaps I was exposed to a little extra testosterone in the womb :)

  • I, for one, fully support the anti-eye rolling stance. There is NOTHING that David could do to escalate a fight faster. He did it once and I swear that my vision blacked out from rage for a second. He never did it again. (In a fight. In jest, sure, or about my mother, of course, but not in serious discussion.) I told him to eff off in anger once, and that show of contempt from me will never be repeated, because that’s his button. (Again, joking about silly things is different. We all know the difference between teasing and real discussions.)

    I can handle anything but contempt. It instantly shuts down conversation. And, in my dating history, relationships.

    • I’m with you on this. Parker-Pope didn’t clarify that there’s a difference between in-jest eye rolling and eye rolling that’s done with contempt, and I wish she had.

      If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of contemptuous eye rolling or other dismissive actions, you know it’s damaging, so I don’t think that research was in vain.

    • meg

      Yes. “I swear that my vision blacked out from rage for a second.” That is what contemptuous actions do. For me, it’s implying that I’m “crazy” (which an eye-roll would do). Sometimes I actually have to walk around the block when that happens, because it’s that or hitting something hard. So, yup. Funny eye-rolls are one thing, serious ones are quite another, says I.

      • JEM

        Yes to the “crazy” bit, nothing can send me over the edge faster.

    • Lindsey

      A lot of the eye-rolling research was from John Gottman, and I just finished his book (the “seven secrets” one)–if I recall correctly, it was eye-rolling in ANY scenario that was the biggest predictor of eventual divorce. Even if the eye-rolling was accompanied by a smile or a joke, it was still a big predictor. That made me super-paranoid–I don’t think I’m an eye-roller, but what if I do it and don’t realize it? I had to take some deep breaths to relax (a few eye-rolls aren’t going to kill my relationship, I’m sure of that), whew.

      • ka

        ANY scenario?


        I have been eye-rolling (in jest), since about day 3 of our relationship, and every time I come across these findings on eye-rolling I go to my fiance and try to have a serious conversation about how eye-rolling affects him. And then he rolls his eyes, tells me it’s adorable, and it’s one his favorite things about me.

        And then I still don’t believe him.

        This is how eye-rolling is going to lead to divorce.

      • I recently read John Gottman’s book as well, and I seem to recall that the eye-rolling was examined in the context of a ‘minor argument.’ So the couples were asked to discuss some minor thing that was a current issue in their marriage – like socks on the floor – and eye-rolling during that discussion was a sign of possible divorce. So I’m not sure whether eye-rolling in a totally joking conversation would count, but reading that definitely had me a little concerned as I do occasionally do it, though never in a truly serious discussion.

        • Yeah, I refuse to believe that sharing an eyeroll about the abhorently behaved people on city transit can lead to divorce. (Because if so, we’d be divorced already, I’ve rolled my eyes so hard. Some people don’t deserve to ride on trains.)

          • ElfPuddle

            PapaMonkey and I do the same with people on airlines.

  • Fiorentina

    I have to say, the part about women being able to smell men’s MHC differences was the bit that pissed me off the most. But then, I’m a biologist who up until recently studied sexual development, so I have a pretty strong foundation in this stuff. Here’s the thing: yes, women can smell differences in men’s MHC complex (when they’re not pregnant or on the pill) – this is no surprise at all. Sex hormones have a profound effect on olfaction. Any pregnant lady can tell you that too.

    But so what?

    Does it mean that the “best” partner for us is the one with the MHC most different from our own? Assuming we are in a position to determine this accurately by olfaction? And if so, should we be choosing our mates on how their dirty laundry smells?

    This argument only makes sense if the most important factor in choosing a mate is maximizing the genetic diversity of our offspring’s immune system (hint: since we tend to hang around with our mates beyond reproduction, and some of us don’t want to reproduce at all, there are more important considerations like happiness and compatibility at play here). Which only makes sense if infectious disease is the primary factor in eliminating individual humans from the gene pool these days (hint: it isn’t).

    The MHC olfaction study was a decent bit of research and it turned up some biologically interesting findings…which have little bearing, if any, on actual relationships between people. Because it was published in Nature, it got quite a bit of popular media attention, and the press drew a bunch of bogus conclusions from it to sell papers.

    If we lived in a world where we didn’t care about things like happiness and compatibility and were only concerned with passing on our genes at the greatest possible frequency and the greatest selection pressure on the human species was infectious disease (MHC plays a big role in this), then the relative attractiveness of your mate’s scent (as a measure of MHC divergence from your own) would be a valid mate selection criterion. And only then would the prescriptive, “Ladies, get off birth control if you want to find the right man” have any weight at all.

    But we don’t live in that world. Neither of the “if” criteria are true. Therefore, the conclusion is not valid. Saying that MHC divergence, and a woman’s ability to detect that via olfaction and whether or not she thinks her mate’s dirty laundry smells good is a godd criterion for choosing her husband is a bunch of bunk. (So those of you ladies who were on BC when you met your man, worry not.)

    I’m not irked at this because I think my partner’s dirty laundry stinks; I’m irked at this because it is grossly and irresponsibly over-reaching the conclusion of the actual research, and I think that the author, who writes a science and health column for the NYT forchrissakes, ought to know better.

    • I would agree with this. I met my partner when I was off the pill and he smells neutral to me. Not bad/not good. When I first read about this smell test I was worried. But since (a) we aren’t 100% sure we are going to have kids, (b) we are obviously not related so genetically different enough I’m sure, and (c) we have so much fun together I decided not to worry about it.

    • meg

      I’m really glad you explained this.

      That said, I DO want to have kids, and I DO have issues of suppressed immune systems and people dying of disease in my family, and I DO very very much care. So that’s research that matters to me, and actually would effect how I pick a mate.

      Thank goodness my partner smells good to me, right? But then again, as a Russian Jew and a WASP, we’re pretty clearly from different parts of the gene pool.

      • Fiorentina

        Meg, FWIW (and I’m not an expert in immunology here, just reproductive biology and genetics), immune suppression may or may not have anything to do with the MHC complex.. If a family history of immune suppression concerns you, a much better way to assess the risk of passing on related conditions is to seek genetic counseling before and during pregnancy. I assure you it will be much more informative than whether or not David’s laundry stinks! (Though, hey, if you don’t find it off-putting, more power to ya.)

        • meg

          Right, but immune suppression is in my genes. So my kids to have a higher risk of dying of disease, so I do care about the MHC complex, since I wouldn’t consider genetic counseling an option for me, ethically.

          Luckily, as I said, we’re golden as far as the research goes.

          • Fiorentina

            Sounds like you have every reason to care – I apologize if my previous comment came off as dismissive of your position. It was certainly not my intention. As your situation points out, on an individual basis, there may be real concerns about maximizing immunological diversity for one’s offspring – it just can’t be easily generalized to all couples.

            Also, (not that you need my validation) it’s fine to take comfort in the fact your specific concerns align positively with the findings here. (But, in case there are other women out there who may be in similar circumstances, but do not think that their partner’s sweaty clothes smell nice, it’s important to keep in mind that we smell *many* things in human sweat and even if you have heritable immune conditions in your family, and you think your partner’s gym shirt stinks, it may not be because you’re smelling his MHC complex, and it does not *necessarily* mean that your children will have weak immune systems even if your MHC complexes are similar. The study does not actually have anything to say about immunological fitness of the offspring – that part is pure speculation, though plausible. Correlation != causation and all that.)

            On a related note, I wonder if you or anyone else would eventually consider writing about their decision-making process about whether/how/when to have children given heritable disease/risk and/or fertility issues in their family, and what effect, if any, this has had on their engagement/marriage/relationship. (I am curious – though not judgmental – about your personal exclusion of genetic counseling for instance. Since I am not sure I want kids, it’s not something I’ve yet had to think about.) Obviously, that is a tremendously personal decision, but I think it would be a great conversation to have here.

          • Anon

            Meg, I completely understand that you’re saying that you personally have an ethical issue with genetic counseling. But you’re someone that people around here really listen to, and I just want to mention that the way I see it, there is not inherently an ethical problem with genetic counseling. Counselors are available to help families that feel they need it, to provide information, and to provide support in making difficult decisions. Clearly, they should never pressure you to make a decision you do not want. But, being someone who will likely seek the assistance of a genetic counselor in the future ( I have a genetic condition that could make pregnancy very dangerous for myself and a baby) I am a little concerned about the implication that I would be doing something ethically wrong. I wouldn’t be seeing a counselor in order to determine whether or not to keep a particular child, but rather for assistance in keeping that child in a way that maximizes safety for us both. That said, I have not yet sought out a counselor, not being in that place yet, so certainly take my opinions with a grain of salt, as I don’t have personal experience with genetic counseling at this point!

          • Anon

            I can’t seem to reply to fiorentina’s comment just above- probably because the space is getting so narrow a reply would be a thousand lines long! But, I do think your last question, forentina, is very interesting. My fiance and I have talked a great deal about the whethers and hows of having children, given that I (as I mentioned just above) have a condition that makes pregnancy and childbirth dangerous for both myself and my child. We both very much want children, but we do have to think seriously about how to go about that. Recently, we’ve been talking about the possibility of considering surrogacy, and while the idea breaks my heard a little, I know that this is a decision for us both, and something that must be taken seriously. The risk of mortality for me is high with pregnancy, and while I am obviously uncomfortable with that, my fiance is even more uncomfortable, possibly to the point of being unwilling to take that risk. But we want children.

            Let me also just say that the “Oh, I have this little genetic condition” conversation was SUPER FUN when we had only been dating a few months. But, really, when to bring that kind of thing up? You don’t want to start talking kids and genetic disorders at date two, but you kind of don’t want to wait until year two, either…

          • Fiorentina

            Anon, I am so sorry that things are so complicated. I can’t even imagine.

            I know Meg has said that she doesn’t want this blog becoming a parenting blog, but I think that the issues you raise, about how to bring up something like a genetic condition early in the relationship, and how you negotiate the already fraught waters of making decisions about having kids with your partner…those seem like relationship things too. I don’t know that it’s my place to suggest it, but I really hope that you’ll consider writing about this process, and that APW will want to run it. I’m sure you’re not alone in these difficulties.

            Hugs to you.

          • meg

            Hey guys,
            I totally don’t want to open up my personal decisions about genetic counseling and/or pregnancy and/or my family health history to some sort of group judgement or discussion. Not cool. Obviously every situation is different. If we had different risk factors in our families, we might make different decisions. Regardless, these sorts of decisions are extremely personal, and no one should be debating other peoples choices. And my private business is my private business, just like everyone else’s. So let’s cool this down, ok? Everyone here it totally capable of making their own choices, given their own circumstances, on this sort of personal subject. The end.


          • Kaitlyn

            I just want to send a little baby shout-out to Anon, sorry for commenting on an old thread.

            Anon, I have three sisters who have PKU, and they’re also considering implications for pregnancy. The questions and concerns they have about it sound somewhat similar to yours, and they’re also navigating how to explain it in new relationships, at what point they should seek counseling, etc. It requires so much bravery and strength. Hugs, you are not alone!!

    • This is excellent information, thank you! I like learning stuff. :)

    • Fiorentina

      Now that I got that off my chest, I did like the de-bunking of the 50% divorce rate.

      The “how to fight fair” stuff was not new to me, but bears repeating.

      While I disliked the “what can straight couples learn from those weirdo homosexual couples” slant, I did very much appreciate the exposition of how same-sex couples tend to have a broader support network than just their partner, and that this correlates to less of a burden on the partner to be all things to a person. As an introvert, this is an important thing for me to keep in mind – it’s necessary and good for my hetero relationship to put in the emotional work in other platonic relationships so that I don’t put too much pressure on our marriage.

      As an aside, I totally agree that there is a paucity of research on non-hetero relationships and this contributed greatly to the hetero-normative trend in the book itself. One (though not the only) reason for this, is that it’s sometimes more difficult for researchers to get the funding to conduct studies on non-hetero couples/relationships/individuals. There are a ton of conservative lobby groups that actively work to inhibit research having anything to do with homosexual individuals or relationships. And, every so often, some Congress-critter gets their pants on backwards and decides that they personally ought to be the arbiter on which studies should and should not receive federal funding – so they go through the list of already reviewed and funded grants and raise holy hell trying to get their least favorite titles de-funded. Guess what’s first on the chopping block? Anything involving trans* or homosexual individuals/relationships, or anything at all involving reproductive or sexual health (regardless of orientation). Or drugs.


    • You just beautifully summed up what frustrates me about Parker-Pope’s writing in the New York Times. She has a habit of jumping to extreme conclusions and misrepresenting the work she’s writing about. I know “study proves that A causes B!” makes a more exciting headline than “study suggests that A is correlated with B under conditions C and D,” but I wish science writers would be more careful about not over-reaching the actual conclusions of a study.

    • Your points are in line with some of my major issues with evolutionary psychology. It’s the whole saying “I like you because you have good genes” thing that really gets me on those theories. Yes he smells good, but I am more than a nose and he needs to appeal to the rest of me as well, in particular my brain.

      • Fiorentina

        Evo-psych can go jump in a lake as far as I’m concerned!

        • Due to certain conditions (ie, wanting to graduate), I have to put it up with it right now. But I’m never happy about it and my husband gets an ear-full about it regularly.

    • Did I mention at the book club that I don’t and never have had a sense of smell? Like at all! So that whole bit was interesting to me. I have no idea if I like Stephen’s smell. He sure LOOKS good to me though! : )

      • Fiorentina

        Ha! Yeah, I wondered if she figured that anosmic women were all flying blind, er….(?) with respect to their mate selection. LOL

    • JEM

      Love it! Go you!

    • Kate

      Whew! Glad to hear this. I’m embarassed to admit that having met my fiance on the Pill, this has been keeping me up at night.

    • Zan

      I like that APW has smarty-pantses.

    • K

      My goodness, thank you for fleshing this out so well. I would have appreciated the book far more if Parker-Pope’s writing had been this engaging and thoughtful, instead of just summarizing research in a way that felt like years of columns hastily strung together.

  • I mostly thought the book was repetitive. She said the same things over and over (sometimes verbatim) throughout the book. I am bad at using bookmarks, and since it was a library book and I didn’t want to dog-ear the pages I used the opening-the-book-to-a-random-page-to-see-if-I’d-read-it-method. There were several times where I got confused because I was reading something familiar in a chapter that was unfamiliar.

    As for the substance, I also was relieved about the debunking of divorce statistics.

    I was surprised when she wrote that couples who outsource their domestic work don’t increase their marital happiness. The two examples she gave were the husband and wife who hire a babysitter b/c they need to work and who have plans to landscape the yard together but get busy and hire someone to do it and therefore miss out spending time working on a project together. If those are the only two options (do the chore together or do work) then yes, I can see how outsourcing the domestic work wouldn’t bring marital happiness. But if you are outsourcing the domestic work to spend time together doing something more enjoyable, then I would argue it would increase domestic happiness. So on a Sunday morning instead of spending two hours cleaning the house (together) you hire someone to do it and spend those two hours going for a bike ride (together). That would definitely increase my happiness in the marriage.

    • I thought it was an interesting point to make as well about hiring out house-work. I worked for 3 years for a family as their maid because they needed someone else to do it in order for them to have a happy marriage. She was obsessive enough that if she cleaned something she would get angry at anyone who messed it up. But if someone else cleaned it then she wasn’t so obsessive about it. They realized this and realized that to keep her calm and happy, they needed someone else to clean so she wouldn’t obsess.

      • Meredyth

        Oh man, I should probably get a maid! Not that I’m obsessive about it but I hate walking into the kitchen to see that our roommate has (once again) created a mess while cooking and LEFT EVERYTHING ON THE COUNTERS for someone (me) to clean. Normally I would say something but as he’s currently dealing with some intense mental health issues, to borrow a phrase, I’d rather not add stress to our house situation. Plus we’re moving in September. But, when I do see the kitchen I just want to move immediately.

        May I add, I didn’t read the book for this month but to Meg’s comment about her and her husband not being best friends: I get it. And I know that what works for you is different than what works for someone else. But I love that my fiance is also my best friend. And that it’s a friendship that developed as we dated. I would never want him to be my only friend, and wouldn’t want to be his only friend, but I’m okay with us being married and best friends as long as it’s not ONLY best friends without all the fun sexual attraction bits. So, just in case someone was reading the book and concerned about this passage being similar to their lives, here’s someone else.

  • Ok, I’ll admit it, I FREAKED OUT about the statement that being on The Pill messes up your sniffer and therefore you’ll pick the wrong man. I have been on the pill for the entirety of our dating and married life. Logically, I know that I have a fantastic and healthy relationship, but seriously, STILL freaking out a bit.

    • Fiorentina

      See upthread for why you don’t need to worry about it. It’s a long comment and I was likely still writing it while you posted this.

      You didn’t pick the wrong man. (But you might have picked the right one – you just can’t tell whether he smells good or not.) You might have picked a man that has some similarity in some of his immune system genes. The only real negative if that’s true is that the offspring of your union might have slightly less diverse MHC genes which would mean a slightly less robust immune system. Since infectious disease is not a huge problem for us* as a species after the advent of modern medicine, worst case scenario for most couples in your situation is that your kids will get more colds. In the grand scheme of things, no biggie, so don’t freak out.

      *though, that could change if we all stop vaccinating our kids

      • Elizabeth

        I want to wrap my arms around you and kiss you for this! I was so worried about this. I know it sounds so silly, but there’s nothing like being told you may have picked the wrong man and you won’t know it until you quit your BC. Yikes.

        Thank you for taking the time to explain this–and so articulately too. You really don’t know how much I appreciate it.

        • Fiorentina

          I am so glad that your mind is eased. That was the other part of her take on that particular study that really made me mad. It was written so authoritatively that even though her conclusions were *wrong* (and I wouldn’t expect someone without a biology degree to necessarily realize this), they sound irrefutable.

          How many of us have been on birth control through much of our adult life? What are the odds that the majority of women met their spouses while on BC? How many of them are now going to be staring down this (apparently) Irrefutable Scientific Fact that if their partner’s laundry stinks (when she’s not on BC) that their marriage is DOOMED?

          Thanks, but I think most women have enough real concerns to worry about without creating new false ones. Irresponsible science journalism is one of my biggest pet peeves. I got pretty steamed up about this one.

          • KEA1

            Amen, Fiorentina, AMEN. I, too, hate irresponsible science journalism. And it’s frightening to me how much of it is out there!

      • Ditto what Elizabeth said. GREAT explanation! Coincidentally, I was already planning to go off the pill this summer for health reasons, so I’ll let you all know if in a month or two I despise my husband ;) And then I can write a book about it!

    • Lindsey

      Becky, ME TOO! That was the biggest thing that gave me pause. In addition to just being swoony all the time and having a wonderful relationship where I’m happier than I’ve ever been, there is the logical part of my brain that knows we are very different genetically, and I love the way he smells with my hormone-addled brain…but when I read that part, I was pretty much like, “Well, oops.” Too late now! I guess I’ll find out in a few years…

  • Stephasaurus

    After reading The Bitch in the House (which I didn’t enjoy at all…I am not a work-from-home writer, a city-dweller, or full of complaints about every little thing, so I couldn’t relate to most of those women) I was THRILLED to read a book with a more scientific approach. I am all about science, all the time. But despite that, I was still pretty disappointed with this book. I found myself raising my eyebrows a lot at some of the conclusions drawn from these studies. While I did find a lot of the biological facts interesting (like the one about women sniffing MHC genes), the word that comes to mind after reading this book is “pseudoscience.”

  • peanut

    There’s a difference between liking the book and agreeing with it 100%. I liked it, and as a scientist I appreciated the various studies cited. Sometimes the conclusions she drew from the studies were not the same that I would make, but that didn’t mean that we can’t draw our own conclusions from them. I appreciate a book like this more than the kumbaya-type marriage advice books that I can’t even read the back cover of without swallowing vomit. I can see defensively disliking it if my husband and I were in one of the “problem groups” (married young, call each other names, etc). Also, study conclusions like the eye-rolling thing doesn’t mean the book sucks, it means the study may have sucked or whatever. I liked that someone researched all the studies and compiled them in layman’s terms, and that the overall conclusion of the book was pro-marriage-but-you-need-to-work-on-it. Even though this book has flaws, I hope that more scientific-based books on relationships keep coming out.

    • That’s pretty much how I felt about the book as well. I could read this. I couldn’t read an overly sappy touchy feely book about marriage.

  • If nothing else, the book caused me to think a little harder about our relationship, which meant we talked a little more about it. When I read out loud the part about eye-rolling and making faces during fights, we both found it interesting. In an argument later that day, my husband broke the tension by making ridiculous faces and saying “is this a bad sign for our relationship?”. I cracked up, and the argument dissolved. The same thing has happened several times since, so overall, this book was good for my marriage. Even if I didn’t love the whole thing.

    • meg

      So you deescalated! That is in the book!

  • I actually found the chapter about housework sticking with me more than the others, but that’s mostly because it was something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

    I tended to interpret the thesis in that part of the book as “dang, women always do all the housework, and it makes us unhappy,” which, yeah, is repeated in our cultural narrative a lot. However, that statement is tricky for me, because I DO find myself doing a lot of the cooking and cleaning lately. But I can never know whether I’m doing it because I’ve got more time than he does (his job is kinda brutal right now), don’t mind it, and like doing something nice for him (which makes it fine), or whether it’s because of “oppressive gender roles sense of duty rraaagggghh” (which makes it not-fine).

    It’s really hard to tune out all the stereotypes/opinions and figure out your actual motivations for that sort of thing.

    But the book DID force me to step back and make sure I wasn’t criticizing (explicitly *OR* implicitly) the housework that he does do. Sometimes I get the urge to re-wash that pan to make sure it’s REALLY clean, or to grab the broccoli and chop it up just a LITTLE bit finer, but I’ve gotten much better at consciously stopping myself, and instead giving a sincere “thank you!”

    • I thought the part about the laundry and women thinking the man was doing it wrong on purpose to get out of doing in the future and men thought the woman was micromanaging was interesting. I could see it both ways once she pointed it out.

      As to unequal housework, this is something I struggle with a lot. My partner also has a brutal job (up to 14 hours several days a week) whereas I have an easy 8 hour day. I am trying very hard to look at the housework as work, so even if I do end up doing an hour a day I’m still working as much as his “short” days. It helps a little to think of it as unpaid work that we are responsible for as a team and it will ebb and flow as to who is doing more at any one time. It also helps that he doesn’t ever expect me to do it all myself and thanks me for picking up the slack. Although sometimes I do wonder if I am rationalizing it and setting up patterns to do the majority of the housework our whole lives (not fair at all).

  • ElfPuddle

    The bit I liked the best was the debunking of the divorce rate myth. Hooray!

    As others have said, much of it was interesting, if only in a “huh. That’s odd/funny/weird/ sort of way.

    I do love reading about how people behave in psych studies, and that was fun. Am I the only one who wonders how many people tried to muck about because they knew they were being studied, or is that just my inner cynic who’s seen too many teens “Christmas Tree” standardized tests? I find the results fun, but I always worry about their accuracy. (Yes, the psych studies *and* the standardized tests.)

    • Dawn

      Back when I was in college I took several classes where we all had to participate in a certain number of little psych studies by grad students and I swear any halfway intelligent person could figure out within a minute or two what they were studying, what their hypothesis was, and how to mess with that. I’m not proud of it now but all too often I was in a bad mood and basically felt patronized by the study and deliberately tried to mess with their results. It has made me incredibly skeptical of most studies. Plus now that I have a job in data analysis and program evaluation and spend much of my day reading studies very much like the ones in For Better (actually many of those exact studies), I’ve read enough to know that data is only as good as the person interpreting it. And there are some really stupid and/or poorly trained people out there conducting studies and interpreting behavioral data as though it is a clinical drug trial (which I also have issues with but that is neither here nor there). I’ve had to attend far too many conferences where people presented studies that made me want to just bang my head on the table as almost everyone else around me raved about the interesting piece of ‘knowledge’ they had just added to the field.

      • With other studies as well. An old roommate’s mother was participating in a low fat study and she called them to tell them she hadn’t been sticking with dietary requirements. They said don’t worry about it and counted her anyway and sure enough the study found “Low-fat diets do not blah blah blah.” I’ve been a total skeptic ever since.

    • As someone who has volunteered and/or been paid to be a guinea pig for number of psych university surveys and experiments and such… this is always on my mind. Usually I try to do my best to be honest and accurate, but sometimes… I get tired. Or none of the answers feel right and “none of the above” is not a choice. Or I might answer A on one day and B on another, just depends on my mood.

      So, yeah… I’m always a bit skeptical.

    • I know of someone who was asked to take the SAT when they were in middle school. The person, not really caring about it, or knowing all the higher math, just spelled things with the bubbles. He ended up doing as well as the average basketball player at the local university.

      I find it interesting that a majority of psychology studies are done on college freshmen in psychology classes. Are we really supposed to believe that they represent the average human being on the planet? Have you seen college freshmen?

      • Hahahaha . . . I certainly remember being one, and while I loved my 18-year-old me, well . . . hahahaha . . .

  • Katy C.

    The reaffirmation of “relationship skills” was definitely the most helpful thing for me. It’s too easy to fall back on “we’re just compatible” in a good marriage and not recognize the specific skills/strengths that allows couples to work well together. & It’s helpful to know that, in some future where that magic compatibility hits a bumpy road, we have specific relationship skills to use, strengthen and help us through.

    As far as not really liking the book…I saw the overall structure as the weakest part. Parker-Pope seemed to line up every study ever done on marriage, loosely join them into chapters and then just run through each one. So you ended up with lots of “Study A says this. On the other hand, study B said this. So…all of those conclusions fit.” She didn’t have a strong thematic tie to the studies (besides marriage) so she just reported on each one– which made for not a thrilling read. (For really really entertaining books on science research, I recommend any and all of Mary Roach’s books. Interesting and hilarious.)

  • Sarabeth

    So, not to burst anyone’s bubble, but I don’t think Spousonomics is any better. I haven’t had economics past undergrad level, but even I can tell when they are misdescribing the prisoner’s dilemma. They are using economics-as-metaphor way more than they are actually applying economic theory to interactions between spouses. The relative advantage trade stuff is well done, though.

    • Kess

      Erg. I wish Freakonomics would do one on relationships. I think that would be a really, really interesting book/article to read, but I’m not sure how much data there really is out there.

  • (meant to be in reponse to Sarabeth above): I’ve heard the same thing about Spousenomics – it seems like an interesting concept for a book, but apparently not very well done.

  • There was a lot, as a person who defends correct statistics and interpretation of studies, that I did and didn’t like about the book. There was a lot of pessimism, a lot of personal slant. But I found the book nice in that it started conversations between us, made us think of things that maybe we wouldn’t have questioned.
    I also liked that at the end there were several suggestions on GOOD things to do for your marriage. It wasn’t doom and gloom and done, there were some concrete suggestions of things most people could do at home.

    Although we all agreed that the how-we-met story thing is a bit scary. :)

  • Lizzie

    I have to admit that the whole monogamy discussion at the beginning of the book turned me off pretty early on and I had a hard time getting back into it after that. It just seemed like such a simple answer to a really complicated question. In our discussion last Saturday, I kept referencing the book Sex At Dawn (a Dan Savage favorite) as a much better researched, more engaging, more nuanced, and more thought-provoking take on the ideal of sexual monogamy in human relationships and what alternative forms of “marriage” can look like. I would love to hear APW readers’ thoughts on that book some day.

    Also – Meg – sorry for the lack of pictures or a meeting report from Boston! We were a pretty small group, and we didn’t stay so much on task in discussing the book, but I assure you that some beers were consumed!

  • i think probably the best thing about reading this was just setting aside time to think about my relationship. like, whether i agreed or disagreed with what she said, i had set aside the time to read (so, not do other stuff) which was nice. i guess it helped that it read like fluff (perhaps because of all the repetition) – my brain was free to wander on the subject.

    honestly, i thought i was annoyed that she hadn’t mentioned gay couples for the first half – but after the chapter about it, i’d rather she hadn’t mentioned gays at all. i found the whole section kind of hilarious (always my go-to alternative to being offended). and, while the same *sex* the idea that me and my wife are the same *gender* is laughable (sorry, but i’m kind of a gender nerd). i also think it really emphasized what was wrong with the gender-essentialism of the whole book – notably, the section on gay relationships essentially said “oh, maybe there are other things just as relevant as gender!” and the book went on as before with that point basically forgotten.

    that said, the note on power dynamics being a major factor in relationships (and of male/female being only one of many social power structures a couple may have to deal with) was one of my favorite parts.

  • elemjay

    I found the section on sex after babies super helpful. This has been a issue of contention in our marriage since our baby arrived (now 11 months old). And whilst it seems obvious that continuing to breastfeed until she was 10 months old might affect my sex drive, I hadn’t thought of it so I found this insightful!

    And the whole point about 50% divorce rate – it’s worth buying the book for that alone.

  • Sarisa

    I started reading the book for the book club, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I felt like it started off with an overly negative tone. A lot of writing about divorce and then moving on to cheating…it felt like it was becoming repetitive even in chapter 3. No thanks.

    I am currently reading “Spousonomics,” however, and so far am really digging it. Maybe for the next book club?

  • KT

    “the SCIENCE of a good marriage” is a better selling title but when viewed as “evidence-based advice” as stated in the last chapter I found myself more tolerant. I was blown away by two statistics that even if you account for a decent error are still pretty amazing: every year a woman works before her first child adds 10% to her lifetime earnings; when a woman gets married her house chores increase by 70%, when a man gets married his house chores decrease by 12%

    • Class of 1980

      KT WROTE: “… every year a woman works before her first child adds 10% to her lifetime earnings; when a woman gets married her house chores increase by 70%, when a man gets married his house chores decrease by 12%”

      Yeah, we women obviously have terrible bargaining powers. ;)