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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Marriage Advice from Common Science

By Jeff Danner Posted August 20, 2012 at 1:20 am

This week I am taking a detour from my usual topics and providing a bit of life advice.  Want to get married?  Find yourself a chemical engineer.  (Full disclosure for first time readers, your humble author is a chemical engineer himself.)
If you want to determine the “divorce rate” in the U.S. and assume that this would be an easy figure to locate, you would be mistaken.  The problem does not stem from a lack of data but rather from the fact that “divorce rate” does not have a uniform definition.  You can find data quoting divorces per year per 1000 adults, divorces per year per married adult, divorce data as a function of age at marriage, and whole host of other measures.  To muddy the waters even further, those who write about divorce rates rarely tell you which definition they are using.
From my point of view the most meaningful definition of divorce rate is the percentage of marriages which end in divorce rather than by the death of a spouse.  The percentages of first, second, and third marriages which end in divorce in the U.S. are 41%, 60%, and 73%, respectively.  In aggregate these rates result in an overall value of 50%.
You can find many studies which examine divorce rates for people in different professions.  Irrespective of which definition is used, chemical engineers are among those with the lowest rates of divorce.  This trend of low divorce rates for chemical engineers has been consistent for decades.  The only other professionals with comparable success rates in sustaining marriage are clergy. 
So why is it that chemical engineers enter into and sustain successful, long-term marriages? I would suggest that the personality characteristics which are required for success in chemical engineering are also useful in being a good spouse.  Consider what is required to successfully complete a degree in chemical engineering.  With homework due every day, lab reports due every week, and many tests and quizzes given throughout the semester, a degree in chemical engineering requires a steady, sustained effort. In contrast, the rhythm of work in many liberal arts majors, with a smaller number of gradable events, includes both more lulls and anxiety producing crescendos.  By the time I took my final exam in one of my engineering classes I would likely have only 20% of my grade left to be determined.  However, a friend studying Philosophy might have more than 50% of his or her grade riding on a final paper.
I think the steady, sustained rhythm of the engineering curriculum is akin to the approach required to be a good spouse.  In the long run, it’s the compilation of daily contributions and small kindnesses over the months, years, and decades that truly count.  Conversely, you can’t expect to salvage sustained periods of poor “spousehood” by trying to ace the final exam of say, an excellent anniversary present.
Another aspect of the chemical engineering discipline that applies well to marriage is the methodology of continuous improvement.  Chemical engineers are taught to evaluate a process or series of events to determine what is going wrong or what could be improved.  The general ethos is to get a little bit better and a little bit better with time.  In any marriage there are many events and situations which occur with regularity: birthdays, holidays, vacations, spending decisions, scheduling conflicts, and hundreds of others.  If your innate approach, reinforced by your education, is to evaluate these repeat events and to look for better and better ways to approach and navigate them, then you are going to make for a pretty good spouse.
Interestingly, chemical engineers have a lower divorce rate than civil, electrical, or industrial engineers.  I don’t know why this would be, but you’ll have to forgive me if it gives me a smile.  So, want to get married?  Start cruising the social events of your local section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Happy 20th anniversary Heather and happy 52nd anniversary Mom and Dad. ( Please note that Dad is also a chemical engineer.)
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