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The Key To A Happy Marriage-and Life: Think Like an Economist

A great marriage has spillover benefits. When it's going well, the rest of life, from work to child-rearing, seems more manageable. But how do you reach that state of bliss? Here's a tip I'm guessing neither your therapist or mom will spout: start thinking like an economist.
Nonetheless, that's the advice from Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, authors of the new book Spousonomics, out today from Random House. Szuchman, a Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal, talked with me about why this is less crazy than it sounds.

Q. At first blush, marriage and economics don't seem to have much in common, except that some people find them dismal. Why did you decide to wed the two?
A. When we started out, we'd both been married just a short time, and we were obsessed with how to make our marriages better. As reporters, our natural instincts were to find answers, but there was nothing in the self-help aisle that worked for us. This happened to be around the time when the U.S. was headed toward a massive financial collapse, and as business journalists we were steeped in the language of economics: booms & busts, incentives, moral hazard, loss aversion, opportunity costs, etc. As dorky as it sounds, we saw an eerie number of parallels between these concepts and our personal lives.
Q. Do tell...
A. In my case, I'd hit a "bust” right after the "boom” of the wedding. I also had a tendency to be so averse to losing that I'd dig in my heels and go all night until my husband conceded I was right. Jenny, who had a new baby, felt like she was getting her incentives wrong when it came to getting her husband to help out. So it seemed to make sense, in an unexpected and counterintuitive way, and also be more practical than other advice books. We could say to readers: "Your problem just boils down to bad incentives â€" here are some good incentives â€" go make it happen!”
Q. If you're deciding between working late because your boss asks you to, and meeting your spouse for drinks as planned, how should you do a cost-benefit analysis?
A. It's a classic trade-off: If you stay late, you miss out on a fun time with your spouse and also risk his or her wrath; if you tell your boss to go fly a kite, you risk your job. Too often we make a rash decision-- "gotta stay late, fingers crossed she doesn't kill me” -- and worry about the consequences later. Better to think through the costs and benefits first. In this case, maybe the downsides of staying late include:

  1. Getting that first, transporting drink of the day later, rather than sooner
  2. Losing much-needed alone time with spouse
  3. Lots of rage, directed at you
  4. Being seen as a pushover by your boss
Maybe the one benefit is possibly getting on your boss's good side. Suddenly staying late doesn't seem like the clear winner. Can you instead suggest to your boss that you come in early the next day to finish up?

Q. Many people (mostly women) think they could save time if they got their spouses to do more around the house. What can economics teach us about making this happen?
A. Two thoughts here. First, I'm a fan of the incorporating the theory of comparative advantage into domestic life. It says that people should specialize in what they do relatively best and then trade for everything else. The "relatively” is key, because it implies that you don't have to be perfect at, say, folding laundry, you just have to be better at it than you are at other stuff, like cooking chicken cordon bleu. If that's the case, then folding laundry should be your job, even if your spouse doesn't exactly love the way you fold. I can't tell you how often we heard from people that they end up doing things around the house themselves because otherwise it either won't get done or it won't get done "right”. My guess is that 9 times out of 10, if you're wondering why your spouse doesn't do more around the house, it has more to do with you refusing to share the load than with him being lazy, no good, selfish or incompetent.
Second, we talk a lot about incentives. These are things that motivate people, the way a free third night at a hotel motivates people to book two nights instead of one. One incentive that economists have shown to be surprisingly effective isn't money or free stuff, it's trust. If people feel trusted by their bosses to do a good job, they're sometimes more likely to do a good job than they would be if they'd been given a raise but were still micromanaged. As someone who has been accused of being a micromanager many times by my husband, I can tell you that being trusted is a better incentive to get him to pay the bills on time than the threat of being micromanaged--or worse, having me take over the job myself. It makes sense. Why would any husband--or wife--do anything around the house if they knew the other person was going to just do it themselves eventually?
Q. Sex is generally enjoyable. We have 168 hours a week. So why do many married couples claim they don't have time for it?
A. Because they're tired, they're lazy, they'd rather watch TV, and they know the other person will be there the next day--and the day after that, until death, or worse--so they can always put it off. We call it a problem of moral hazard. In economics, the term is used to describe a situation in which people behave irresponsibly when there are no repercussions. It's why the big financial firms--Citibank, AIG, Lehman Brothers--had no qualms making ridiculously risky loans. They knew Uncle Sam would eventually bail them out. They were too big to fail. When you start taking your marriage for granted, when you assume your better half will be there for better or worse, it's super tempting to take risks. Like putting off sex. Or claiming exhaustion. But come on, sex really isn't that hard--and hey, it doesn't really have to take longer than 168 seconds.
Readers, have you ever put economic principles to work in your marriage?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, mags20_eb
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