Sex & Relationships

How economic theory can help you have a happier marriage

A new book explains how the science of economics can help you to stop fighting over dirty dishes, improve your sex life and achieve domestic bliss.

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Most people consider marriage a partnership—but they don’t fancy themselves business partners. Here, Paula Szuchman, co-author of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes, explains how injecting a little more economic acumen into your relationship can save you a lot of headaches.

Q: How are economics and a happy marriage connected?

A: Economics is the study of how people, companies and societies allocate scarce resources, which happens to be the same puzzle married couples are perpetually trying to solve: How to spend their limited time, energy, money and libido in ways that keep them smiling and their marriages thriving. So many of today’s marriages comprise 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 their natural-born lives together. This is not easy.

For all intents and purposes, marriage is a business—a business that flourishes in boom times, but other times take work. Tackling that work requires dipping into those scarce resources: Finding the time, mustering the energy, feeling the love, weighing the costs of being flexible and the benefits of standing your ground. The trick is to (a) boost those precious resources and (b) allocate them more intelligently.

Q: What role do economics play in a household division of labour?

A: Division of labour allows economies to function. In any company, every person has a discrete task that he or she specializes in. If each person did everything, it would be a disaster. In a marriage, both spouses also divide the labour. What we advise is to be smart about how you divide it, since like it or not, housework can be a big sore spot for a lot of couples. So rather than just expecting everything to be naturally 50/50—and then getting steamed when you think you’re doing more than your fair share—assign each person tasks to specialize in. And make decisions based on who does each task well relative to other tasks. This is a system that’s modeled off the theory of comparative advantage, which is the foundation of global free trade. In my house, I do all the bills and my husband does all the sweeping and mopping. This speaks to our skills and preferences. And while it might not feel fair on certain days, over our lifetimes together it will all even out.

Q: How can you use economics to get your spouse to do what you want?

A: Use the right incentives. Incentives are tools used to motivate people, plain and simple. Credit card companies offer a year without interest for new balance transfers. Shoe stores advertise the second pair for half-price. Incentives rule at home, too. When your kids don’t eat, and you’re at the end of your rope, you incentivize: You want ice cream tonight, better eat your broccoli. Every time you try to get your spouse to do the dishes or clean the basement or finally hang that picture you had framed six months ago, you use incentives. You offer kindness, you come home with flowers, you issue threats, ultimatums, and promises.

Economists have found that a great incentive is actually trust. Trust people to do the right thing and they’re often more likely to do it than if you offer to pay them. Paying is transactional, whereas being trusted feels so good, it makes you want to prove you’re worth it. So the next time you think nagging your spouse will be the key to getting him to come home from work when he says he will, think about the incentive you’re giving him: Gee, if I come home on time I won’t get nagged. That’s hardly a motivator.

Q: How do the laws of supply and demand relate to sex?

A: In the economy, demand usually goes up when costs go down. It can work the same at home. If sex feels “expensive” to you—meaning it will cut into your work or sleep time—then make it cheaper. Maybe that means doing it in the afternoon, before you have dinner and get all catatonic, or before you tuck in for the night and get all snoozy. Or maybe it means taking the guesswork out—guessing being a time-and-energy suck—and tell each other bluntly when you’re in the mood instead of keeping each other guessing. Schedule it. I realize that sounds incredibly unromantic, but it’s way more romantic than not doing it at all. And if you’ve both committed to doing it ahead of time, it’s a lot harder to bail and say you’re too tired.

Q: What are your best, economics-influenced marriage tips?

A: Besides the ones we already mentioned, here are a couple more that can really help:

Be prepared for busts: Just like the economy, marriages go in cycles, with good times often being followed by recessions (aka rough patches). Know that they’re part of the process, and instead of freaking out, think of ways to reinvent yourselves.

Don’t let your loss aversion rule your life: Economists have found that we are so averse to losing, that we’ll start acting irrationally when we suspect we’re about to lose. That’s why gamblers bet the house when they’re down and stock traders refuse to sell losing bets even when the market’s tanking. In relationships, loss aversion can factor into arguments when you find yourself fighting more for the sake of winning and being right than for actually coming to a resolution.

Think at the margin: Economics is all about trade-offs. (Remember those scarce resources I mentioned?) Since you can’t have everything, you sometimes have to make trade-offs. Small house in city but easy commute or big house in suburb and longer commute? Kids or social life? (Kidding!) But anyway, thinking at the margin means thinking about small changes you can make that will have big impact.