Spousonomics: How Economics Can Save a Marriage

New book gives tips on best ways to keep marriage strong.

March 9, 2011, 11:56 AM

March 9, 2011— -- How should a couple split up the chores? How can they keep from fighting? How can they have more sex?

Answer those questions and you might have the key to a perfect marriage.

The authors of a new book called "Spousonomics" say the best tips for keeping a marriage strong come not from Oprah or Dr. Ruth but from close economic analysis.

"Economics is the study of scarce resources. What is more scarce in your marriage than time, energy, love, libido?" said Jenny Anderson, who co-authored "Spousonomics" with Paula Szuchman.

Common wisdom suggests that happy couples share responsibilities like laundry, dishes and cleaning. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the most important things in a successful marriage are faithfulness, sex, and sharing household chores.

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But does that mean that every chore should be divided exactly half-and-half? That might sound fair, but economics says it's folly.

"If you're doing half and I'm doing half of each task, then the time we're spending on everything is actually greater than if we specialize," said Szuchman.

Take, for instance, a hypothetical couple, Jack and Jane. It takes Jack 30 minutes to do the laundry and 20 minutes to walk the dog. Jane can do the laundry in 45 minutes and walk the dog in 25.

If they each do the tasks half the time, it would take them a total of 420 minutes per week.

Even though Jack is better at both tasks, it's in the couple's interest to split responsibilities according to ability and take advantage of what economists call comparative advantage. Jack should just do laundry because he's comparatively better at it, and Jane should just walk the dog because she's comparatively better at it. By specializing, they could save 36 minutes a week.

"Everybody has to do something," said Szuchman. "This is a system for dividing it up in a way that's more efficient."

Specialization gives the couple more time for TV, relaxation, or sex.

Economists Say Couples Should Have 'Cheaper' Sex

So what about sex? Most all married couples say they want to have more sex, but the number-one thing that stands in the way is exhaustion. People say they're too tired for it at the end of a long day.

"Glamour" magazine might say that couples should spice things and make sex more special with some candles or a massage, but according to the authors, economics says it's better to just get on with it.

"Some mediocre sex is better than no amazing sex," said Anderson.

It all boils down to simple supply and demand. In business, when the cost of something goes up, the demand goes down.

"This can be true for sex as well," said Anderson. "When you make it cheaper -- and we don't mean in monetary terms, we mean in terms of time and energy -- demand for it can rise."

"The more expensive sex is, you are celibate, and the cheaper it is, you are a rabbit," added Szuchman.

Couples can have "cheaper" sex, the economists say, by finding different times of the day. Make it a priority and don't wait until you're in bed ready for sleep. The bottom line is that if you have more sex, you'll have more sex.

Of course, in every marriage, there are disagreements and even fights. What is a couple to do when things get tough? The old advice suggests that the best thing is to keep talking and never go to bed angry.

"Right, that's bad advice," said Anderson.

Economics says that sometimes, at least, the best thing is to simply shut up and stay angry. Human instinct called loss aversion can keep a couple arguing long after it's productive, simply out of stubbornness. It's the same instinct that drives a stock trader to hold on to a losing company long after he should have sold.

"We hate to lose. Economists have quantified that we hate to lose twice as much as we like to win," said Anderson.

The Economics of Marriage

So to combat that instinct, they say, it's better simply to go to bed angry and wake up in the morning with a clear head.

And even when frustrations boil over, Szuchman and Anderson say it's vital to remember how great marriage can be and try to make things work.

"Marriage is a long term investment," said Szuchman. "The last thing you want to do, when you start panicking that life isn't as sweet as it used to be, is run out the door looking for a replacement."

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