If you’re married, engaged, thinking about getting married, unmarried, divorced, or never want to get married ever, you really should read a funny, controversial, and enlightening new book by co-authors Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, two Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalists, respectively. It’s called Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes and it’s the closest thing to an actual strategic relationship and marriage manual that you’ll likely ever find. And if you think that a healthy, lasting marriage has absolutely nothing to do with Economics 101, think again. (And if you think a book about marriage and economics sounds dull and boring, really think again.) Then check out my Q&A with Paula and Jenny:
In your book, you talk about “specialization and comparative advantage” in marriage. But is it fair for one person who excels at and usually enjoys one household chore (cooking, in the case of my husband) to always be tasked with that chore, even if they sometimes want a break?
Fairness is irrelevant. We’re not saying that it isn’t human to feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick, but focusing on fairness will get you nowhere. (Economists would warn us to beware “inequity aversion,” or our intense hatred of unfairness, which causes us to act irrationally.) That said, the person who specializes in cooking doesn’t have to cook every night. He or she is allowed nights off. Any job comes with breaks, right? But if he never wants to do it, then it’s probably the wrong specialization.
You talk about “giving incentives” in marriage. What’s the difference between an incentive and blackmail? Or an incentive and an ultimatum?
Sometimes there’s probably no difference between the two — if blackmail motivates your partner to come home on time, then that’s a pretty good incentive. If it works once but ultimately makes him resentful and even vengeful, then it’s a pretty crappy incentive. The catch with incentives is that the ones we use automatically, without even thinking (like saying over the phone, “if you’re not home by 7 p.m., I’m leaving you for good”) are often the ones that are going to backfire. Good incentives take into account what motivates people in the long term, not just right now.
I love your idea of “bringing economics into the bedroom.” But keeping in mind the title and subject matter of “Spousonomics,” I want to know: Do you believe in the concept of soulmates?
Paula: Irrespective of the book, no, I don’t “believe” in “soulmates” in the sense that’s there’s one person out there for you. If that were the case, we’d all be single or unhappily married. I think when you find someone you love, who loves you back, and with whom you can also share a home, a bank account, and children, then you’re in good shape. If sharing all that stuff is sometimes hard and you argue, but you ultimately continue to love each other and laugh and are able to move on, then you’re in really good shape.
I’ve always wondered: Do all married couples need joint bank accounts?
Jenny: No. Plenty of people make it work by keeping separate accounts or by having some joint and some separate. There was a great series on Slate recently about how married couples share or don’t share their bank accounts, and it turns out, it takes all kinds.
Paula: My husband and I only have joint accounts and the only reason it works is because neither of us make any crazy big purchases without checking with the other — or make them at all, really. We also make about the same amount of money and want to save, but also like to buy nice things. If we were more different in more ways, I can see how it would be better to maintain some autonomy.
Say a married couple has no real experience with the field of economics. Aside from reading “Spousonomics,” what are the three most important things they should know about how economics is directly tied to a healthy marriage?
1. Think at the margin. Too often we think more about big changes we want to make, but incremental changes can also have big impact.
2. Go to bed angry. Here’s why: We are loss-averse creatures, meaning that not only we do we hate losing, but in the face of losses, we act irrationally. About 34% of respondents in our Exhaustive, Groundbreaking and Very Expensive Survey said they keep fighting even though they can’t remember what they’re fighting about. So when things get heated, and you’re fighting to win and not to resolve the issue, take a time out and revisit when you’re not hyperventilating.
3. Invest in your marriage. A lot of us think, “Hey, I’m married, I can let myself go,” which is a classic moral hazard — acting recklessly because we assume there will be no repercussions. Well, half of marriages end in divorce. There can be consequences. So try to be the kind, patient, loving spouse you were when you started out this crazy journey.