Could understanding "loss aversion," which explains why people act irrationally when they think they're losing, help you argue less with your spouse? Could "comparative advantage," which recommends sticking to what you do best, ease tensions over household chores?
In their new book, "Spousonomics," authors Jenny Marks and Paula Szuchman take an unusual look at the relationship between economics and marriage.
Paula Szuchman joins us to explain her theory for marital improvement.
Book Excerpt: Spousonomics
By: Paula Szuchman and Jenny Marks
Robert, a handsome thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur, wanted to have sex last night. It had been a tough couple of weeks: A major investor in his energy drink company had bailed out, his marketing director had left to join a rival start-up, and this afternoon, the supplier of his secret Balinese ingredient threatened to double its cost estimate.
Joanne, Robert’s wife, was not even remotely in the mood to have sex. She was beat. She’d spent the day on conference calls with grouchy New York traders, missed lunch, nearly rear-ended an Escalade racing to pick up her kids from soccer practice, and still had a stack of overdue bills to pay. She wanted to watch 24 reruns, eat a few Mallomars, and go to bed.
Should Joanne have had sex with Robert?
Robert would say yes. She’s his wife, for Pete’s sake—that’s what she signed up for. Is it too much to ask his own wife to agree to fornicate with him on occasion, especially when he’s totally strung out and the last time they did it was three weeks ago? Doesn’t she realize he has needs? Joanne’s girlfriends, if asked, would tell her no way—she doesn’t have to put out every time Robert comes knocking. She’s not some concubine in his harem. She needs to set boundaries, listen to what her own libido is telling her. Doesn’t he realize she’s had a rough day, too?
But there’s a third answer to the question: the economist’s answer. The economist would advise Joanne to strip away all the simmering resentments and scorekeeping, the questions about who’s more tired and who’s less horny, and keep things simple with a basic cost-benefit analysis: Would the marginal cost of having sex with Robert—nine minutes of sleep, a third Mallomar—outweigh the benefits—an orgasm, a happy husband, a peaceful home?*
Welcome to Spousonomics: the art of using economics to minimize conflict and maximize returns on life’s biggest investment—your marriage.
Many people think of economics as dull, wonky, and irrelevant to their daily lives. Those people are not entirely wrong. It’s called “the dismal science” for a reason. Economists, it is true, have been known to write papers riddled with impenetrable equations, Greek letters, and words like autarky, satisficing, and monopsony.† But that’s just so no one else can understand what they’re saying.
*There’s no right or wrong answer to the question—it depends on a range o factors, from who’s answering it to the lunar cycle. But if you’re curious how Joanne replied, her answer was no, the marginal cost would not outweigh the benefits. She thus agreed to a quickie after dinner, fell asleep immediately, and left Robert to finish the dishes.
†In English: self-sufficiency (autarky); settling for what’s good enough (satisficing); and a market controlled by one buyer (monopsony).
At its core, economics is way simpler than all that. It’s the study of how people, companies, and societies allocate scarce resources. Which happens to be the same puzzle you and your spouse are perpetually
trying to solve: how to spend your limited time, energy, money, and libido in ways that keep you smiling and your marriage thriving. Think about it: Here you are, two ambitious, opinionated, stressed-out adults, trying to live in the same house together, prosper together, maybe raise kids together, and, with any luck, take pleasure in spending the rest of your natural-born lives together.This is not easy. For all intents and purposes, your marriage is a business, a business that flourishes in boom times but at other times feels like running a marathon the morning after a night of too many margaritas. It feels like work. All kinds of work.
There’s the administrative work that goes into maintaining some semblance of a home, which is a whole lot more complicated when two people are in the mix. Someone might consistently pick up after himself, for example, while someone else leaves a trail of apple cores, unmade beds, and sweaty gym clothes. If there are kids, then someone has to make sure those kids have done their homework and are fed, clothed, and in bed by seven, and sometimes that someone is unexpectedly doing it alone because the other person decided to go to happy hour with friends from work, and happy hour turned into dinner, which turned into a late-night beer-pong tournament.
There’s the emotional work that comes with living with someone who’s not you and who therefore has different preferences and styles of communicating. She might prefer to talk for three days straight if
that’s what it takes to resolve an argument, while you would rather fill your pockets with granite and walk into the ocean. He might like camping and you might like opera, and since there’s only one free weekend to do something fun together, someone either caves or you both stay home and watch QVC.
There are the little things—the work of compromising on the perfect house, of calculating where to cut costs when money’s tight, of deciding whether it’s cruel to name your first child after Aunt Flo. And the big things—the work of being nice to each other after a terrible fight in which mean things were said, of staying up all night worrying if you made the right decision moving to the city for her new job, of letting him discipline the kids, of picking your battles, meeting halfway, letting things slide. Tackling all this work requires dipping into those scarce resources we mentioned earlier. Finding the time, mustering the energy, feeling the love, weighing the costs of being flexible and the benefits of standing your ground. This is where a little economic know-how comes in handy. By thinking like an economist, you can have a marriage that not only takes less work, but that feels like a vacation from work. The trick is to a) boost those precious resources, and b) allocate them more intelligently. Do that, and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to a better return on your marriage.
We believe in economics because it doesn’t discriminate between the sexes, between who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who communicates better and who talks worse. It doesn’t talk down to you or attempt to psychoanalyze. It doesn’t care who won the last fight or whose turn it is to control the remote. Instead, it offers dispassionate, logical solutions to what can often seem like thorny, illogical, and highly emotional domestic disputes.
In this book, we’ll show you how to apply basic economic principles to get the most out of your resources. Meaning: have more sex, wash fewer dishes, argue more effectively, have more sex, survive the lean years, negotiate more successfully, have more sex, and, believe it or not, get your spouse to do things he’s never done before, like clean the gutters. Or listen.
- Wall Street Journal: The secret to a happy marriage: do the Dishes, put out, don’t talk so much
Copyright (c) Random House (February 8, 2011)
This segment aired on March 21, 2011.