Marriage can seem like a hard sell these days. There are a lot of other things out there to worry about. Politics are unraveling. The planet is burning up. Wages aren’t great. Game of Thrones is over. Beyond that, dating has gone almost entirely digital, monogamy has been challenged by unconventional alternatives, and marriage rates continue to decline. Indeed, it is a strange time to be practicing the concepts of love and romance. But, of course, the tradition endures. Seeing it through just seems more daunting than ever.
Belinda Luscombe understands this. An editor-at-large for Time magazine, she’s spent the better part of a decade writing about love and marriage, detailing the intricacies of the institution and how it’s changed. This month, she released her first book, Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together. Injecting nods of humor into a traditionally dry genre, she explores the difficulties in achieving long-term success within a marriage and highlights some potential solutions to success for the long run, guided by both science and experience. Fatherly spoke to Luscombe about her research into modern marriage, what couples need to be mindful of in order to keep things on track, and why marriage is a radical act.
In the book, you identify six aspects that tend to make or break contemporary marriages: familiarity, fighting, finances, family, fooling around, and finding help. How did you settle on these six specific factors?
Those just arose naturally from the research. The first two are about challenging behaviors: how to avoid treating your partner with contempt and how to fight well. The next three are about challenging subjects, the things couples often stumble over. And the sixth is about what to do when prevention and maintenance have gone wrong — as they usually do with us humans — and some actual curing is needed. We get professional help for so many things. Think of how readily people will do physical therapy if they have a sports injury. Why not this super-important part of our lives?
Which of these subjects was most difficult to develop and offer advice on?
This is not much of a contest: fooling around. Sex is such a hot-button issue. There are many, many confusing and often completely contradictory messages. There’s the only-sexy-women-are-valuable message, which seems to contradict the equally prevalent women-who-are-sexually-aggressive-are-scary message, which also contradicts the women-who-don’t-put-out-are-uptight-control-freaks message. And that’s just for one of the genders. Guys have a whole other set of myths and preconceptions about virility and performance. And the number one piece of advice most sex therapists give — talk more about sex and what you want — is utterly terrifying to so many married couples.
Which was the most straightforward?
There are some really ridiculously simple shifts in behavior that people can make when they’re fighting that have a pretty revolutionary effect and are supported by research. Don’t fight over text (too easy to be misunderstood). Don’t fight while driving (things in our peripheral vision alarm primates). Don’t fight while anyone is hungry or just before bed. (I’m in the feel-free-to-go-to-bed-angry camp.) Remember to avoid lethal phrases such as “You always…” and “You never…” (Try “I find it difficult when…”) Never, for the love of mercy, follow the words I’m sorry with the word if. And avoid following any apology with the word but. Stuff like that was actually really helpful to my marriage.
Do you think any one chapter might be particularly useful for men to review?
Well, men do half the work of any heterosexual marriage, so I hope they’re all useful. I’m assuming men get already a lot of great advice about parenting from Fatherly, so maybe the “Fooling Around” chapter. I think the sexual model known as “responsive desire” might be pretty interesting to a lot of people. It explains how different people’s arousal mechanisms can be. Although they may also want to check out the manifold and long-lasting benefits of taking a paternity leave. And finally, for those long-term planners, there’s a really interesting Harvard study that has followed hundreds of Massachusetts men for 80 years (so far) found that the single best predictor of men’s health at 80 was their satisfaction with their relationships at 50.
We’re living in a somewhat strange time when it comes to love and romance. So why do you think a book that centers on the more “traditional” aesthetic of marriage might appeal to modern audiences?
You’re right. In the era of the start-up, of the pop-up, and the flash mob, a relationship that’s supposed to last a lifetime can seem like an anomaly. It’s too permanent. It doesn’t lend itself to disruption. You’d think we’d have discarded it with all the other no-longer-useful human inventions like the walking plow and the fax machine, and waiting a week for the next episode to arrive on TV.
But as I thought about it, I realized that marriage, or some form of long-term committed monogamy, is possibly the most radical act many of us will ever commit. It’s like micro-socialism. You announce — in public, if you’re marrying — that anything you have or anything you make you will share 100 percent with this other person and that any issue or problem or burden that strikes them you will bear equally. That’s quite a way to live your life. People want to experiment with new methods of forming a family — which are actually old forms if you think about concubines and polygamy — but the data suggests those arrangements offer a different but not smaller set of problems. Marriage is old, but then so are great wines, vintage cars, and cave paintings, and they’re all amazing. Old doesn’t mean bad.
What can parents in particular take away from this?
Keeping marriage fun and intimate and fulfilling is a really great gift to give your kids. They see how love works. They see what commitment is. They see what sacrifice is. They can feel part of a really safe and tender little unit. You don’t have to take my word on this: The studies on how parental harmony is great for kids are really robust. This is not to say people should stay together for the kids; it’s to say that treating your marriage as a thing worth maintaining is enormously beneficial to them. Also, as a family writer, I get almost a book a week on parenting techniques, which seems to be too heavily tipping the scales in one direction. To me, marriage feels like the forest, and the kids are the trees. You can’t grow trees without maintaining the habitat. There’s probably a cliché we could quote right here, but let’s not.
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