Tara Parker-Pope — the very engaging New York Times health and psychology writer — has a new book out called For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage. I may write a bit about the book soon.* But today I want to discuss a related post she just put up on her blog, one of the NYT's most e-mailed stories this week.
She starts the piece by asking: Why do some people find it easy to resist the temptation to cheat while for others it's just so hard?
There do seem to be certain biological factors that influence us humans when it comes to resisting adultery. For instance, men who produce less of a bonding hormone called vasopressin are more likely to cheat. Nonetheless, studies have also shown it's fairly easy to train people to become more committed to protecting their relationships.
It's all very interesting — and happens to dovetail with another book I'm reading: Paul Bloom's How Pleasure Works (out next month). I'm only a few chapters in,** but his central thesis seems to be that while certain biological or evolutionary factors do inform our ability to experience pleasure, we are arguably more influenced by culture, life experience, and the identities we adopt for ourselves when it comes to what pleases us. Think of it this way: We like fatty food in large part because it is so helpful when it comes to survival, but our cultural influences and personal history are going to impact us when we make a breakfast decision to have a croissant instead of a red-bean cake, or when we decide in the evening to have a big plate of pad Thai over a steak.
Another example: When I was a kid, and I went over to the little village in Ireland where my grandmother lived, all she had was fresh milk, straight from the cow. It made me want to vomit and I wouldn't drink it; the thickness and the ripe smell were too foreign. But nowadays, the locavores and organic-fanatics would think that's a rare delicacy.
ANYway. Maybe this seems kind of obvious. But it seems a lot of people like to use evolutionary biology as something of an excuse for bad behavior. Like guys who say they sleep around because it's part of their biological nature. Sure, that's partly true ... but it's also true that it's fairly easy for most of us to fight certain biological impulses when it's to our benefit: We diet, for instance; we go to the gym and exercise; and so on. Dudes who just throw up their hands and say, "I'm a gigolo; it can't be helped!" just want a convenient excuse to keep doing what they're doing. And if they're single and uncommitted, well, good luck to them.
All this raises the question: Are women like me who say they can't have casual sex also just wimping out in the face of certain biological impulses? Perhaps, although this case is a little more complicated; a slutty man is finding an excuse to do something that gives him pleasure in the act of sex and likely doesn't make him feel too many personal pangs of guilt, loneliness, unworthiness, whatever — whereas the woman who doesn't like casual sex is acknowledging that she doesn't like a certain activity that causes her short-term pleasure but longer-term discomfort and unhappiness, despite certain cultural indications that it's okay.
However, I digress.
What I really wanted to say is that Parker-Pope concludes by noting that researchers now believe that what might keep happy couples together are not self-replenishing feelings of love or loyalty. "Instead," she writes, "scientists speculate that your level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons. ... To measure this quality, couples are asked a series of questions: How much does your partner provide a source of exciting experiences? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?"
If your answer to all three questions is "a lot," then you're in good shape. Ditto if you imagine your partner responding to all three questions by saying "a lot."
Also exciting is this: According to me, if you find yourself answering "not so much," there's plenty you can do to improve the situation. Read a book together. Go on a trip to Italy — or a bike tour around Maine. Take a class together. Check out a night of experimental music and discuss it — or go to a museum and rent the headset thingies so you can learn more about what you're looking at. On and on.
I love this news, because the implication seems to be that the more you make yourself an interesting and adventurous and knowledgeable person, the happier your partner will be — and indubitably, the happier you will be, too.
*I have a copy of TPP's book here on a shelf above my desk — in an enormous pile that actually fell on me yesterday, knocking my coffee mug to the floor, thereby breaking off its one and only limb.
**I'm actually kind of pissed at Paul Bloom, because the book is so interesting that I stayed up way too late reading it, and got a very bad sleep, and I'm cranky now.