The Lesley Stahl Interview: Tara Parker-Pope and the Science of Good Marriage

Photo Credit: Evan Leslie

The New York Times’ health expert sits down with wOw’s star reporter to talk about the scent of selection, why opposites really do attract, and more

LESLEY STAHL: Tara Parker-Pope, welcome to wOw. You’ve written a wonderful book called For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. If you’re married, thinking about getting married, been married, or have a child who’s getting married – you have to read this book. You say that if you go to a scientist they will tell you whether your marriage is going to make it or not make it, right?

It’s kind of surprising. You don’t really think that science and marriage really go together.

LESLEY: Exactly.

TARA: We like to think that the mysteries of love and matters of the heart are somehow removed from science. But what we’ve learned is that you really can study human relationships and learn a lot of really useful advice that can be applied to everyday relationships. I wish we could all go into a lab and have some of these experts evaluate our relationships. Obviously that’s not practical, but there’s a lot from the science that we can apply to our own lives.

LESLEY: I love that you say that they listen to the pronouns we use to describe each other, and they look not at what we fight about but how we fight.

TARA: I have to say, this simple little revelation has changed my life. This pronoun thing is really telling.  Language is something that offers a lot of clues into what you’re thinking and feeling in all aspects of life. One of the things they do is ask the people, “How did the two of you meet?” We ask that question all the time. But if you listen to the narrative that comes back at you, you really can get some clues. Is a couple saying, “Well you did this and I did that.” Or are they saying, “Oh, we had this experience. It was a great time for us.”

LESLEY: “We” is good. We could use the word “we-ness.”

TARA: We-ness, I like that. But you really do start to hear it. I was actually listening to Michelle Obama talk about her first date, and it’s fascinating because I had just learned about this research. There was an amazing amount of detail. She remembered the flavor of ice cream; she talked with such affection and warmth, and it was really clear that this was a relationship that today was definitely very connected and very strong. So this is kind of a way that you can almost self-diagnose your feelings. It’s a really fun and useful bit of information for couples.

LESLEY: I want to repeat that every five or six pages you were blowing me away. So here’s another blow away: Women are most attracted to men with completely different genes, and the way we women detect whether someone has different genes – are you ready everyone? It’s by sniffing. Now tell us about this – M.H.C.

TARA: Yes, I love this body of research and I think it’s useful for all of us to understand and appreciate that biology does play a role. I take great comfort in knowing that there are biological mechanisms at play helping me make a better choice in my mate. In these studies, they took young men who wore T-shirts, the same shirt for a couple days; the men exercised, and the shirts got very sweaty and stinky. They then had a group of women and asked them to sniff the smelly T-shirts. And what they find is that women actually do have a preference, a smell preference. What women are sniffing out — who they prefer — are men with very different immune systems. There is an immune system gene called M.H.C., and they find that women are choosing somebody very different. And it makes sense. You want somebody genetically different; you’ll have healthier offspring, as an evolutionary theory. But what they see, more interesting, is that when women don’t do this, when women choose somebody more similar, they’re more likely to have an unhealthy relationship, they’re more likely to have an unhappy relationship, they’re more likely to have had affairs. It really does seem to be important to the health of a marriage.

LESLEY: You just mentioned the biology of love or romance. You have a whole section on the human flirting complex. We like to look at birds and peacocks do their little mating dances and so forth — but apparently, we do the same thing.

TARA: You know, it’s fascinating. What’s amazing is people – scientists – have actually camped out in smoky bars and watched couples, filmed, taken notes and seen these same patterns over and over again: a flip of the hair, bringing your hand up to your mouth and sort of laughing. They see that couples, when they do connect, start to have the same rhythm; they both pick up their drinks at about the same time; maybe one brushes the hair out of the face and the other shifts in his chair. You get these rhythmic movements that occur when couples are attracted to each other. We see it in nature and we see it in the human animal as well.

But the really good news that comes out of this research is that it is not the most attractive woman in the room who gets the most attention; it is the woman who is most open, who has the most skill at flirting, who has the best hair toss, who is open and uses the hand gestures and the eye looks and the laughs that bring people into her circle. And I think we’ve all seen women who have that charisma. But it does show that while appearances certainly are important in relationships, in dating, it’s not always the best-looking woman or the best-looking man who attracts attention. It’s been documented in these studies.

LESLEY: It is totally fascinating. Here are some factoids that I actually wrote down from your book, that I think people will just be amazed to hear, because every part of this is counterintuitive:

1. Hard workers, people who work the longest hours, are better lovers.
2. Jews and agnostics have 20 percent more sex than Christians. Now that’s funny.
3. The rich and poor have more sex than the middle class; and college graduates have less sex.

TARA: Well, obviously people are going to vary, but I think the issue with hard workers is kind of interesting. The more hours a week you work, the more sex you’re having. And it makes sense; people who have that kind of intense personality, you’re all in: in work, you’re all in to everything. You can look at the religious differences and it’s not entirely surprising. I think sometimes if you’re raised with very strict Christian values, you can develop, maybe, less little attitudes about sex. Maybe you have a different experience, different values about sex than maybe somebody that’s raised differently. That’s not entirely surprising, although there are plenty of people who were raised in Christian families who are having a lot of sex, who are married. So I just think these patterns are kind of fun. We see that jazz lovers have more sex. It kind of makes sense.

LESLEY: One aspect that you really delve into is the effect of marriage on health, for good and bad.

TARA: Yes, this is one of my favorite topics, actually, because I think it’s often misrepresented.

LESLEY: Explain the good and the bad on health.

TARA: A lot of the time, we really believe that all marriage is good for your health – it’s better to be married than to be single, which is a little bit of a drag for those of us that are single. But the research has gotten more sophisticated and what they’ve seen is that good marriages really are quite good for your health. The bad marriages are terrible, and it’s better to never have married at all than to be in a bad relationship.

LESLEY: Now here’s one that you wrote about in this mating dance that made me laugh out loud. Ready, everybody? Trips to the ladies’ room.

TARA: Well you see it.

LESLEY: But why is that part of the mating dance?

TARA: Well, think about the sort of promenade that you might see of animals in nature. There’s a strut that goes on, and this is a really common pattern that these scientists have documented. The groups of women will sort of parade to the ladies’ room, and they see them use a different stance and develop flirtatious behavior. Again, it’s just the study of the human animal and it shouldn’t surprise us that we see these patterns.

And they’ve done these amazing studies of men and women. They’ve actually put them in heart scanners and looked at the tone of their marital conflict. They found that if you’re in a marriage,  it’s OK to argue. But if, when you argue, that argument lacks warmth – if he doesn’t say, “Sweetheart”– that is so detrimental to your health. It’s as bad as if you were a regular smoker, in terms of what they see in your heart.

LESLEY: Is that right?

TARA: It’s fascinating. I think we often under-appreciate the role of marital stress. Your home is your refuge; your partner is the person who’s there for you. They’ve compared work stress and marital stress, and marital stress is much tougher on you physically. One of the messages I really want to give couples is that learning how to fight fairly and well and being nice is not just good for your marriage; it really is good for your health.

LESLEY: Wow, I love that. Now here’s a whole area that I have to say shocked me. Having children is most often not good for a marriage – particularly when the baby is first born.

TARA: Overall, children bring us much joy. But we see consistently over time a huge drop in marital happiness when children arrive. Even though this is sort of upsetting to think about, it’s actually really helpful for couples to hear this happens, because everybody who’s ever been in this situation experiences this dramatic change in their relationship, and they’re a little worried. Even though your marital happiness is dropping, it doesn’t mean you’re unhappy; it just means that your marriage is undergoing this time of stress and change. And I think the most important lesson is from the empty nest, because once kids leave home they look at these couples and their happiness just shoots up.

LESLEY: How miserable we are when they arrive and how happy we are when they leave. I just want to say publicly that I pray my daughter never sees this interview!

TARA: There’s good news though. I think what’s really important is to pay attention to when we study the empty nest is to say, “Well, why are these couples so happy?” And what’s fascinating is they’re not spending more time together. Couples are spending about the same amount of time with each other; it’s the quality of the time. When they’re together, they’re much less stressed, they focus on each other. So I think the lesson from the empty nest is that you need to make sure that you are checking in with each other. Talk about your relationship, talk about your feelings of connectedness to each other. You’re usually talking about the kids; talk about each other instead.

LESLEY: You also talk about how there’s a drop-off in sex after babies are born, for all kinds of physiological reasons.

TARA: Right.

LESLEY: And you say in the book that women, even if they don’t feel like it, should have sex anyway, and a lot of it.

TARA: Yes, it’s kind of a tough message to deliver because women are like, “Are you kidding me? This is just one more thing somebody’s asking of me. I’m exhausted.” I think both sides have to give a little bit here. Women are often physically exhausted, and they have hormonal issues and different reasons. But it is true that, even if you’re not quite feeling it, that once you do start with sex, you release a lot of chemicals and hormones. Your body adjusts pretty quickly, and you go from not wanting sex to really quite enjoying it. But I also think men need to take some responsibility here. The data shows that when men contribute more to childcare, when they contribute more to housework, they report more sex in the relationship. Men today are contributing a lot more to parenting and to the housework than they used to — but it’s still a lot less than women do. And we’ve seen that in study after study. When a woman gets married, her housework increases by 70 percent. When a man gets married his housework declines by 12 percent. So he’s getting a pretty good deal. If he just does a little bit more, her life is better.

LESLEY: And his sex life will get better.

TARA: His sex life gets better. I say this all the time to men – women love this message but men kind of grumble about it – “Come on. I’m giving you here a free pass. This is easy. Just help with the dishes sometimes.”

LESLEY: I read in the paper that the FDA has approved a new Viagra pill for women. So that should help young women.

TARA: I talked to a lot of women about this issue on my blog, the New York Times Well Blog, and I hear from a lot of women about sex and low desire. And it’s about time there was something to help women. I think in general when sex leaves a marriage the partners are very sad. It’s really an important way to stay close to your partner. So I think every marriage defines what’s important and the amount that is the right amount for them. Everybody has a different definition. But, clearly, the science shows that it’s important to relationships, and it’s correlated with a more positive marriage and a better relationship when you do have a regular sex life with your partner.

LESLEY: OK, I have one final question, and one that I was riveted to in reading. This is for anybody who has ever been “madly in love” – I mean, almost sick in love. And I can confess that I have been there, and I used to talk about it as an illness. And you’ve come along and told us that it actually is an illness, or it manifests itself physically and chemically as an illness. Tell us about that.

TARA: They’ve done studies to look at the newly in love compared to people who aren’t.  They put these people in a brain scan and they have them look at a picture of a friend, somebody they care about, and they have them look at their beloved, the person that they’re really into, and they do see these patterns in the newly in love and the people in the throes of romantic love. Their brain looks just like somebody with obsessive/compulsive disorder, or somebody with a drug addiction or a gambling problem. It’s just all about reward. You know, dopamine is just off the charts. Again, I think this is useful especially for married couples. While you’re married you might meet somebody new and you’re feeling some of those butterflies of interest and flirtation and you’re thinking, “Gosh, I don’t have this in my marriage. Maybe there’s something wrong with my marriage.” Well, it’s not something that lacks. It’s a brief chemical experience, and love changes over time. It changes emotionally and it changes in your brain. I’ve been in dating relationships and I’ve been very taken with somebody. I’ve told myself, “You know what? This is the dopamine talking. Don’t get too caught up in this. Give it some time.” And sure enough, it often will stay. And when it doesn’t stay, you know there’s something real there. Love is an emotional experience, but it’s also a chemical and physical experience. I think that’s useful to know.

LESLEY:I’m going to end this fabulous conversation with you and once again tell everybody that I really, really was fascinated on every page. But this particularly, being madly in love, you describe as a major mental health crisis that really does drive us crazy. That’s just one wonderful example of all those interesting things you’ve written about. I want to congratulate you.

TARA: Well, thanks. It’s really been a fun project and I’ve enjoyed it a lot and I do hope people will get some useful information because I started this a little cynical about marriage. I had just gone through a divorce, and I ended a true believer in our ability to form positive relationships and improve our relationships.

LESLEY: And improve our health.

TARA: And improve our health. That’s really been quite an enlightening experience for me as well.

4 comments so far.

  1. avatar Dianne Lopp says:

    Can Ms. Stahl explain why she found it “funny” that, according to Ms. Parker-Pope” Christians supposedly have less sex?  Why is it amusing to her?

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Actually, that particular statistic has been found to hold true in a number of different studies…and they weren’t all organized and analyzed by Jews and agnostics, either.
      Why is this funny? Because quite a few Christians, and, of course, the various Christian religious organizations, preach that only through a Christian marriage will a couple find wedded bliss and spousal harmony. Now, part of this wedded bliss is usually sex (unless you don’t like sex, and perhaps that is part of that 20% gap).
      I do understand that, per the Old Testament (the part of the Christian Bible that many Christians use to selectively determine which bits validate their own, personal values, fears, hatreds and beliefs…then ignore the rest) does firmly, unequivocally state that sex is for procreation, not for funsies (except the Song of Solomon, which is intensely erotic, and never mentions babies, or procreating…but a lot of stuff that makes some Christians get really antsy and pretend they’ve never noticed is actually in their…gasp…Bible. And if you think that’s naughty, you should read certain passages in Kabbalah. And no, I’m not a New age Madonna fan).
      Which leads to the prohibition of birth control, and pre-marital sex (why would you want to have babies before you’re married? They’d be…bastards!), and of course, same-sex sex. And masturbation, which would embarrass the angels. O, and fun. Or so at least certain dour Christian fundy types like to claim. So the idea of Christians having lots of sex, for amusement’s sake, is something that strikes certain people as odd to begin with.
      But yet, many Christians claim to be very happy and have wonderful married lives. I suppose that this accounts for the higher percentage of pornography consumption in so-called Red States, which have a very high concentration of church-going, god-fearing Christians. No, I didn’t make that up, and it isn’t left-wing propaganda. But one does wonder why people allegedly so satisfied with their sexual lives are lurking on internet porn sites quit so much.
      Which is why it’s so funny. Us horrible, not-doing-it-the-right-way agnostics (that is funny, because almost every Christian I’ve met has thought I was not only an atheist, which is something completely different, but maybe breaking the law) and the supposedly sexually repressed Jews are actually having more sex than the properly-married-in-the-eyes-of-god Christians. There are many possible reasons for this, including the fact that many Christians won’t use birth control at all, and so abstain to prevent the birth of more children…and that a surprising number of Christian women I have personally known, or read the words of on the Web, feel that once they’re done having kids, their “marital duties” are also finished, now and forever.
      I don’t know…but it is amusing.

      • avatar Dianne Lopp says:

        I didn’t ask you if you thought that quote was funny, nor am I particularly interested in your reasoning—and I use the term loosely.

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I have noticed people who have been married for a long time seem to mirror each other in size, body language, likes and dislikes, etc. Outside of their gender they are pretty much the same, and this is more common in happy relationships. Is this just because they have spent so much time together viewing each other or after a period of time the two lose their individuality? Of the couples I know, early on their characteristics were miles apart.