The book is an interesting take on what it takes to attain a happy marriage and why only ~30% of us end up in happy marriages.
The book is divided into three sections – what is love, why we fail in the game of love and what can we do differently to succeed at it.

book cover the science of happily ever after

The nature of love

Why happily ever after is so hard to find

  1. In the western world,
    1. 50% of marriages end up in divorce,
    2. ~10-15% are separated without divorce and
    3. ~7% go along with an unhappy marriage
      which implies only 30% live happily ever after.
  2. Being “in love” is equivalent to having a “liking” (fairness, kindness, loyalty) and a “lust” (sexual desire).
  3. Post-marriage, liking declines at about 3% annually while lust declines 8% annually (in first 7 years of marriage) => from a long term perspective, it’s better to invest in liking than lust.
  4. Children’s fairy-tale belief about love is a beautiful girl falling in for a brave hero and they fall for each other in minutes. This is far from what happens in reality

Why you get only three wishes for love

  1. Stability of traits – Traits rarely change. The traits which people carry during their initial period of dating are indicative of how they will behave in the future.
  2. Due to “positive illusions”, we ignore annoying traits of the person, we are dating.
  3. The friends/observers of the relationship had a better perception of the relation [reference].
  4. The popular notion of being intoxicated by love is not that incorrect
  5. Singles end up wishing for an unreasonable number of traits in their partners. They usually end up grabbing partners based on the traits they first see (in lieu of traits they would have most wished for).
  6. Most choices are by chance [reference].
  7. Wishing for at most three wishes for a partner is a pragmatic choice, anything beyond is too wishful.

Wishing for the wrong partner

Why we squander our wishes

  1. Strategic marriage: Before the 1800s, short life expectancies and a constant struggle for survival => just finding a mate and procreating was a hard enough challenge that singles would optimize for reproductive fitness (healthy partner => physical strength, good immune systems). In a dangerous environment for struggle, thinking of marrying someone for romantic inklings would be far fetched.
  2. Romantic marriage: As the life expectancy began to rise and urbanization happened (more mating options in close proximity), “marrying for love” was actually possible.
    While investing in reproductive fitness had a good return on investment (RoI) during the previous era, now with much healthier individuals, its RoI is limited.
  3. When asked to rank traits, physical attractiveness was 4th for men and 5th for women (among the list of 10 traits) and resources were at the bottom while agreeableness and intelligence were high up.
    But when they were forced to choose only a small number of traits, they chose physical attractiveness and resources (men prioritized looks and women prioritized resources).
  4. When singles were asked to rate themselves and partners on certain traits, in terms of physical attractiveness and wealth, there was strong to moderate similarity while on personality traits like kindness, extroversion, etc. there were only weak associations.
    So, a modern marriage game is about fighting the urge of reproductively fit mate with the psychological urge of a happy marriage.
    Most broken real-life marriages are about passionate lovers falling apart once the ephemeral passionate love phase is over.
    It leaves people with lovely moments and tragic endings.

Wishing for physical attraction

  1. What is a beautiful face?
    The symmetry of the left and right side of the face – a beautiful face.
    The average size of facial features (they are believed to correlate with immunity to a broad range of diseases) – cute face.
    Prominent features (wide jawline for men and voluptuous lips for women) – sexy face.
    Apart from these three underlying rules, personal preferences do play a role in deciding what we find to be beautiful.
  2. What is a beautiful body?
    We have the remarkable subconscious ability to judge symmetry of a body.
    Prominent features like V-shape for men, 0.7 waists to hip ratio for women, indicate a high amount of reproductive hormones.
    Good physical appearance is an indicator of good reproductive hormones, therefore, we are subconsciously trying to choose better survival for the offsprings.
  3. RoI of physical attractiveness
    Physical attractiveness does correlate with reproductive health and general fitness (Exception: V-shape in men correlates with higher mortality risk) but returns are diminishing in the modern context.
    Psychological implications: “What is beautiful is good” is a subconscious belief. Attractive people are judged to have better social skills, more intelligence, and better mental health.
    Relationship satisfaction: Attractive men are less satisfied in a relation, no other causal relationship was found. If the wife is relatively more attractive than the husband, there is more positivity in the relation, if the husband is more attractive, there is more negativity.
    Therefore, given the constraint of three wishes, using one for attractiveness is a poor return on investment.

Wishing for wealth

  1. We love wealth since, in the past, we could just not get hold of enough of it.
  2. In the US, 75,000 $ annual household income is best for kids, kids born in lower-income families miss out on basic needs and kids born in higher income families suffer from anxiety and depression.
  3. For lower income families, economic hardship takes a toll on the relationship stability but beyond a certain sustainable income, more wealth leads to diminishing returns in terms of relationship stability.
  4. Marriages done solely for one partner’s wealth are not stable.

Finding Happily Ever After

Seeing your romantic future with your crystal ball

  1. After a failed relation, people look back and see the red flags which were visible in the beginning and they decided to rationalize them out during the charm of the relation.
    Observing the important personality traits during the relationship and trying to estimate the chances of forming a satisfying and stable relationship is important.
    Couples when asked to estimate their probability of divorce put it at 10%. Then they were told that the divorce rate is 50% and now they estimated the probability of their divorce to be 23% while estimating 58% for others.
    Another study showed that couples rated each other’s marriage much higher than the friends/family around them, 6 months later in a follow-up study, it was found that friends/family were a more accurate judge of the relation.
  2. What should I be looking for in a partner?
    Look for traits, characteristics consistent over time, like personality, physical features, etc.
    Personality traits – extroverted vs introverted, nice or mean, calm or neurotic.
    Attachment style developed during childhood continues into adulthood, it could be – secure/insecure/avoidant
  3. Do engagements/marriages/babies change people?
    We are born with genetic predispositions towards certain traits and growing up with our biological parents just reinforces those traits.
    What you see is what you get in your partner forever.

The Power of personality

  1. Nature (genetics) plays a stronger role in personality than nurture. Nurture definitely can enhance or curb personality traits.
  2. Traits like height, extroversion, intelligence, emotional stability are highly inheritable, others like religiousness are not.
  3. The best way to know one’s personality to is to ask friends/family members for a personality report like big five, the person themselves and their love are just too biased to give an accurate judgment.
  4. Self-saboteurs: Neurotic individuals tend to have a history of turbulent relations.
    They also seem to face unfortunate events from their environment which on the surface appear as bad luck.
    Their short term immediate reward mechanism triggers the worst long term consequences.
    Neuroticism is a predictor of lower relationship stability.
  5. Cheaters: Individuals who are high on openness and low on conscientiousness have a novelty-seeking personality.
    They are fun and exciting and are initially deeply absorbed in relation.
    They are associated with abusive behavior and explosiveness during conflicts.
    In the long run, however, they provide less relationship stability.
    They are most likely going to end a relationship because the “spark is gone”.
  6. Nice guys: Novelty seekers or neurotic individuals are best for the dangerous mating environment. But in the modern world, lifelong partnerships have to last twice as long, agreeableness and responsiveness turned out to be the better predictors of long term stability.
  7. The ideal partner would be moderate in neuroticism, moderate in novelty seeking and high in agreeableness.
  8. What distinguishes a great marriage from a good marriage is how much appreciation trumps tolerance.

Role of In-laws

  1. Relations with caregivers (parents) can be secure, insecure or avoidant and they reflect on what kind of adult relations will the child form.
  2. The chances of a secure child becoming an insecure adult are higher than vice-versa.
  3. Research shows that people end up picking partners who have similar attachment style while they would be better of picking partners with a secure attachment style (test here).
  4. The anxious (insecure) attachment has shown to have an association with increased risk of heart diseases, it also correlates with poor management of illness.
  5. Insecure attachment causes conflicts during interactions and leads to lower relationship quality.
  6. Avoidant attachment causes lower connectedness and hence, lower relationship quality.
  7. If you are an anxious individual: don’t panic during critical situations.
  8. If you are an avoidant individual: don’t run away from critical situations.

Red flags in relationships

  1. A good relation needs five positives to one negative interaction.
  2. Negative partner attributions are strongly correlated with divorce.
  3. Demand/withdrawal pattern is another big red flag.
  4. Relationship capitalization happens when one partner shares a piece of good news and the other one responds with an equally good amount of enthusiasm.
  5. A partner can respond in an active/passive constructive/destructive way, active constructive is best of all and produces marital satisfaction as well as a strong feeling of intimacy.

How to make your wishes come true

Behavioral activation approach

  1. Clarify the ultimate goal – to live happily ever after (and not to get distracted by primitive instincts guiding you towards physical attraction and wealth)
  2. Identify your partner selection patterns – Rate past relations/attractions on novelty seeking, neuroticism, agreeableness and attachment style to identify your own preferences. Also, rate oneself using the same metrics.
  3. Make wishes – List of 10 wishes you want in the life partner, rank them and select top 3.
  4. Design a plan of action – List out small steps to attain the goal
  5. Track small victories