When I began researching a book about the science of relationships, I fully expected the project to reflect my own experiences. I had divorced after a 17-year marriage, and looking back, it seemed remarkable that we lasted that long. I was cynical about marriage and men, and remember thinking that perhaps we weren’t really meant to spend our lives with one person. After all, wasn’t marriage essentially a coin toss anyway?
But a funny thing happened on the way to publishing a book. I’m still a single woman in my 40s with no plans to marry any time soon, but I’m now unabashedly optimistic about the state of marriage today and the power we have to forge positive relationships. My exploration into relationship research became an intensely personal journey as well, as I began to view my own marriage through the prism of science. Although I came away with a clearer understanding of what had gone wrong in my own marriage, I also discovered the remarkable potential we all have for getting it right.
My journey from marriage cynic to evangelist can even be seen in the different drafts of my manuscript. A section on the science of infidelity morphed into a fascinating exploration of the science of commitment. A chapter on divorce risk evolved into an upbeat chapter on the strengthening of marriage with each decade. Even the title of my book, initially pitched as the clinical and detached, “The Science of Marriage,’’ was tweaked to reflect a more optimistic view.
Why did I choose to focus on the “for better” part of the marriage vow rather than "for worse?" While every marriage has its ups and downs, the data I found on relationships made me realize that much of what we read about the state of marriage today simply is divorced from reality. The fact is that the vast majority of couples who get married will stay married – the 50% divorce rate is simply a myth. Not only is the overall divorce rate declining, but with each generation, couples are waiting longer to get married, and men and women are doing a better job of choosing mates. Data from economist Betsey Stevenson at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School tracks 10-year divorce rates by generation. Among college educated women who married in the 1970s, 23 percent had divorced after just 10 years. But among similar women married in the 1990s, the risk of divorce by 10 years had dropped to just 16 percent.
And while we are inundated with news stories about famous cheaters — Tiger Woods, Jesse James and most recently, conservative Indiana congressman Mark Souder – the statistics on infidelity paint a far different picture of the American husband. In any given year, only 10 percent of spouses report an extramarital affair – that means 90 percent of couples claim to be faithful. Obviously, some percentage of people are lying, but the consistency of infidelity data collected over the years suggests that cheating is not nearly as rampant as we often imagine. Faithfulness remains the most valued quality in a relationship, according to Washington’s Pew Research Center. And more important, relationship researchers report that the main reason a spouse cheats has nothing to do with sex or a wandering eye – it’s all about opportunity. The typical husband doesn’t find himself in any situation even remotely similar to the opportunities for cheating faced by Tiger Woods. Men who live in the real world are too busy shuttling kids to soccer games and mowing the lawn to line up high priced escorts or sneak away with an office worker.
None of this is to say that marriage is easy or that some couples don’t struggle or even that some men and women don’t cheat. Of course they do. But in studying happily married couples, the evidence shows that the path to lasting happiness is surprisingly attainable. Be nice to each other. Learn how to fight fairly and de-escalate an argument. Hold hands. Share new experiences together. Celebrate the good times. Forge strong relationships with others to take the burden off your marriage.