Economics: The Key to A Happy Marriage?

The secret to marital bliss?  wOw spoke with co-author Paula Szuchman

wOw: What gave you the idea that economics, of all things, might provide the key to a happy marriage?

Paula Szuchman: Economics sounds like a counterintuitive approach — people hear the word and think about GDP and balanced budgets. But at its core, economics is actually the study of the allocation of scarce resources, or how societies can make smart tradeoffs when resources are limited. We think that has a lot to do with marriage. Couples are also trying to figure out how to allocate their resources, be they work time, leisure time, money, patience or libido. And since much of what goes on in a marriage is business—housework, child-rearing, bills–we think it makes sense to look for ways to allocate your resources more efficiently so that the business side of your marriage can run more smoothly and with less bickering.

wOw: Was writing this book rough on your husbands? Were they willing to provide real-life experiences to help provide fodder for the book?

PS: It was rough on our marriages. For some reason, it didn’t occur to us that writing a book, holding down full-time jobs, having babies (we had a total of 3 between the two of us while writing the book) and also being good spouses was kind of a Herculean task. But we made it through thanks in large part to the help of our husbands, who most of the time picked up the slack at home, knowing they, too, were making a tradeoff: help out more around the house now, and benefit from wife’s massive book sales later (ha). And yes, even though they initially said they didn’t want to be featured in the book, they ultimately agreed to it in service to those massive book sales.

wOw: Your book advises people to go to bed angry, even though that’s completely against the conventional wisdom. Why is this a better policy?

PS: Because it gives you time to cool off, get some sleep and revisit in the morning with a clearer head. The conventional wisdom is well intentioned, but, I think, misinterpreted. You shouldn’t go to bed angry if there’s a dispute you can resolve quickly and without leaving hurt feelings, i.e. “It upset me that you didn’t clear your plate after dinner.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll try to remember to clear it next time.” But how often does a dispute at the end of the day after you’ve both spent ten hours at the office, put the kids to bed, eaten dinner and answered all those pressing emails, resolve that seamlessly? Very rarely. Most of the time, such arguments quickly escalate. One reason they spiral out of control is loss aversion, which is the term economists use to describe our intense aversion to losing — so intense that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid losing and act extremely irrationally in the face of loss. Loss aversion is why people bet the house when they’re down. And it’s why we dig in our heels and insist on winning an argument, even if it’s midnight and we need to get up at 6 a.m. the next day. The best way to combat loss aversion is to take a time out. Come back later when the fear of losing has been replaced by the desire to resolve an argument and move on, ideally with an ounce of goodwill still left for the other person. So if that means going to bed angry, go for it. Sleep is never a bad thing.

wOw: You assert that affordability is the key to having a better sex life. How so?

PS: The general rule in economics is that when the cost of something goes down, demand goes up. That’s why people tend to flock to Apple stores whenever Steve Jobs announces a price reduction. We’re borrowing that notion and applying it to sex. The #1 reason people we surveyed said they weren’t having enough sex with their spouses is that they were too tired, followed closely by too busy. (Remember what I said about limited resources?) So if that’s the problem, one solution is making sex less exhausting, less daunting, less time consuming–in other words, more affordable. We talked to couples who set a goal of having sex a certain number of times a week, no excuses. They didn’t have fireworks sex, but they had sex–and some quick sex turned out to be better than no amazing sex. Go figure. Other ways to make sex more “affordable”: be transparent with each other (tell each other what you’re into and what you want), and send clear signals that you’re in the mood or not in the mood, to avoid any guesswork (also something that uses up precious resources).

wOw: In your book, you come out against splitting household chores 50/50. Why?

PS: Because first of all, it leads to score keeping, which is very resource-intensive. Second, it means we’re constantly measuring fairness, and whether we’re getting the shaft, and that’s also resource-intensive, not to mention a losing battle. Third, because there’s a better way. We recommend borrowing from the concept of comparative advantage, which says you should specialize in what you’re best at RELATIVE to other tasks. Meaning: If you’re better at dishes–faster, more thorough, more willing–than laundry, and he’s better at laundry than dishes, he should be in charge of laundry and you should handle dishes. And yes, that means you’re doing more than 50/50 when there are dirty dishes in the sink, but it evens out on laundry days. You should read the book to see how it works in detail, but the upshot is that this method saves you time–which is something that is always in short supply.

wOw: Did writing this book change your marriage — and if so, how?

I’m not sure it totally changed my marriage. But it taught me a lot of cool tricks for handling situations that we weren’t so great at handling before. I’m definitely much more aware of my loss aversion and much better at calling a time out when an argument has become more about winning than about resolving. And my husband and I rarely if ever argue about our division of labor anymore since we each have the tasks we specialize and trust that we’ll both get our jobs done. We also learned that we can survive a very tough couple of years.

Editor’s Note: Paula Szuchman, with New York Times reporter Jenny Anderson, is the author of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and the Dirty Dishes. A page-one editor at The Wall Street Journal, where she was previously a reporter covering the travel industry and lifestyle trends, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. Visit her at spousonomics.com

7 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    As I began to read this article, I was reminded of that old saying:  If mama’s happy, everyone’s happy.  And I smiled.  But then I read on.  .  . and if I read the next part correctly, two women – women who had wonderful husbands, children, and already “a life” – began writing a book – “a book that would make money” (and tell me how many books “make money in the largest sense of the word”?) would admit that knowing that it would be “rough on their marriages” — which is scary in any way you would want to look at this — would not hold off for a few more years until they were not spreading themselves so thin??  Absolutely needing to be the family breadwinner is one thing, but do any of us – with choices – want to (as the author puts it) “want to survive a very tough couple of years”???

    Of course, in life we do not know what lies ahead . . . but hopefully, when we are doing so extra-curricular in what certainly more than suggests strain on a marriage, arguments or disagreements that children sense if they do not actually see, we are bright enough to step back and think — and think again.  

    I agree that women need leisure time in those child-rearing years.  The perfect child does not exist.  But when we have committed to “marriage and children” — shouldn’t they come first over the arguments that have their base in our time away “writing a book”???  This does not in any way equate to two parents both needing a full-time job to make the money stretch.  No way.  

    If arguments – if “handling situations” has become a way of life in your home, if sex has to be scheduled and timed, you ladies are really truly missing out.  .   . and so are your husbands.  In a really good marriage, I thoroughly believe in a division of duties (though I hate the sound of the phrase) – whether you are writing a book for two years or not.  You and your love (if there is much love left) hopefully are generous enough to help each other out.  .  . knowing that happiness is likely to reign if the chores of life at home are out of the way so there is QUALITY time for you too — and the kids.  If there are “set rules” on who does what, I foresee troubles and those arguments that seem to reign in your homes.  There should be a free-going give and take.  Yes, it sometimes is not 50/50 — or even close.  But our outside life problems heavily influence that.  IF we are mature enough to understand that, sensitive to the other, it evens out or gets close.  

    Nothing is perfect.  But the better your home life is, the better your positive outlook is — and it shows in your adult love and your reasonable feelings for your children.  They are learning as they watch the parents.  . and seeing arguments, overhearing arguments all the time will flow over into their life and school, coming out in ways that you will never dream.  Trouble ensues.

    You are not treading water in your financial lives.  In that case, I suggest that love, caring and consideration – and finding the joys of family life while your husband and family are still the heart of it all will never come again.  You made these choices — and they are wonderful ones.  Make them count — and you will find that your life ahead that the two of you have grown together, become closer still.  Throwing monkey wrenches into the works in writing a book for the fun of it at the expense of a smoother love and more time for YOU TWO is truly a gamble.

    You can let me know in ten years if I was right.

      

     
     

    • avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

      Hi Joan and may I add:
      PS: It was rough on our marriages. For some reason, it didn’t occur to us that writing a book, holding down full-time jobs, having babies (we had a total of 3 between the two of us while writing the book) and also being good spouses was kind of a Herculean task.
      Really? It doesn’t take a whole lot of insight, whether you tie it to economics or not, to realize what a tough task this would be. Looks a little like trickle down to me.

  2. avatar Bella Mia says:

    My husband and I have both had health issues at different times, mine more malingering.  Therefore, he’s assumed more duties like grocery shopping and laundry, and I do more business and computer work.  I am also The Muse. I read to him, while he’s doing things like driving, or sorting clothes.  That works for us because he says he doesn’t mind doing the work IF I read to him.
    I’m the child chauffeur, although he does morning school runs.  I’m the night person, he’s the day person which worked GREAT when we had to be up with babies.
    He’s the cook because the smell of food sometimes makes me nauseous.  But I don’t mind doing dishes afterwards, neither does he.  Best of all, we have a bunch of kids who do chores, although not necessarily to our standards.
    I agree that not solving challenging problems in the moment is key.  We make up first, move on then re-visit the issues later.  Breaking the peace just usually isn’t WORTH the damage to the relationship.
     
     

  3. avatar lshell says:

    I really appreciate this interview!  Nice to see the authentic answers.  Going to bed angry is something we have agreed to do for 30 years, and although it’s counter intuititive, I believe it allows dust to settle and “true” issues need to be addressed and you will know that in the morning when they are still there – it’s a “true Issue”.  Interested in reading this book! 

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    It will be interesting to see how your perspectives change over the years. My husband and I didn’t go into marriage with the idea of allocating resources. We went into it knowing that we wanted to spend the rest of our life together. Before we took the plunge we had premarital counseling to make sure we were on the same page with finances, our ideas of raising children and other issues that can make or break a relationship.
     
    There is a certain amount of give and take in any relationship at different times as jobs, family, health or other issues require our time. We took our vows, for better for worse in health and sickness to heart. At the time we never could have imagined that before our child had reached middle school my husband would be diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that required me doing the majority of the house work and all of the lawn care, Later I took on the care of my husband’s father when he had an accident and was diagnosed with dementia. They are part of the marital package of in sickness and health and better as well as worse. The love we started with is still with us as we see milestones of graduations, marriages and coming grandchildren. We know we don’t have forever so we appreciate every single day. Some of what a real marriage is about is life happening instead of a negotiation. Facing what comes as a team instead of looking after our own self interests.

  5. avatar Linda Myers says:

    What’s next – a marriage app for the IPHONE. When unconditional is replaced with conditional, scheduling and bringing the metrics otherwise in life to construct a marriage – where is the love?

  6. avatar carolynevans says:

    Great Q & A. I especially like the bit about making sex more affordable–less of an investment. Paula Szuchman my disagree, but I think sex in a marriage acts a lot like a commodity–as supplies dwindle, demand skyrockets (as in, when a man believes his prospects for sex are really low, he becomes that much more desperate for it). When sex is not readily available in a marriage, it creates a sense of scarcity in the relationship, which permeates the whole relationship. So. A quickie? That’s pretty inexpensive time-wise, but can create a sense of abundance that’s really valuable to the relationship. ::Carolyn Evans