How Can Economics Improve a Marriage? Ask the Authors of Spousonomics

Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, a pair of journalists, are co-authors of the new book Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes. It sorts out optimal strategies for household chores (it’s all about comparative advantage), paying the bills on time (find the right incentive!), and the “too-big-to-fail marriage.”

In a recurring feature on their blog called “Economists in Love,” Szuchman and Anderson have been bringing us the marital insights of economics luminaries including Colin Camerer; Dan Ariely; Shelly Lundberg and Dick Startz; and our own Dan Hamermesh. I particularly like this answer, from Camerer:

Q: Any free riding in your household?

Camerer: No. Here’s why: I am one of the world’s leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory. But my wife is a woman. So it’s a tie.

Szuchman and Anderson have agreed to field your questions related to the ideas covered in their book, so fire away in the comments section below and, as always, we’ll post their answers in short course.


How do you weigh the value of physical chores - such as laundry folding and snow shoveling - vs. psychological chores - such as planning the college application process and keeping teenagers on task for school? As the one with the psychological list I find it is never done - and so I am never free to relax. And frequently annoyed with my partner when he is "done" with his physical tasks.

Chris Parsons

If both parties are at least partially at fault, who should apologize first? The husband or wife?

Forced Celibacy

Does either party have sexual obligations to the other? Economically speaking, of course.

Why isn't one of your authors a male? Seems like there's an inherent bias there.

Anna Broadway

What would you say to those daunted by the opportunity cost of marriage -- or any committed/monogamous relationship generally?

Michael Radosevich

Can any person maximize happiness in a long-term relationship? I know of no "happy marriages" or even happy long-term relationships. Almost everyone I've ever known has said that happiness starts to decline after two or three years.

Studies show that it's impossible for two people to be "in love" for more than a few years. It's how our brains work. It seems apparent that serial monogamy is best - two or three years together, maybe four, and then find someone new.

M. Steve

How would you recommend bringing up perceived imbalances in power without eliciting a defensive response from one's partner? (Especially if one is a man, and one's partner is a woman.)

Harrison Brookie

How do you avoid the counting favors game?


How would you have used economics to improve the relationship shown in the recent movie "Blue Valentine"?

It seems to me that the main problem was profoundly emotional and no amount of economic wisdom could have made the marriage better.


@Michael Radosevich - I believe that's incorrect, somewhat; a study I saw showed happiness decreasing following Year 1 for about 20-25 years... then rising sharply up for the rest of their lives. Basically, it's likely that kids and mortgages and tuition and jobs cause stress, but as each of those become more manageable (kids out of house, house paid off, etc.), their marriage gets much better.

Q for the authors: When weighing job options, which is more important - personal happiness or familial stability? For example, what if one half of the couple wants to change professions, but it will at least temporarily set the family back, is that worth it? Or should they take the higher pay in the more miserable job?

Ian Kemmish

Why would anyone who found themselves viewing their marriage in terms of finding incentives, or of totting up comparative advantages, not immediately seek a divorce? (Even the tax breaks some countries give married couples must amount to less than the opportunity cost of the time you waste on those activities.) Such a marriage is clearly no more than a house-sharing arrangement. Best to call it that in name and in law as well as in fact.


My wife describes herself as a sex camel -- she only needs it once every two weeks regardless of circumstances. What do you suggest?


Great topic, Mr. Dubner, thanks!

I was listening to (don't laugh) Suze Orman, and she says that spouses, regardless of their respective paychecks, should divide the housework based on how many hours they work, not based on how much they earn. Do you agree?

(I see someone has already raised the subject of shovelling snow - no need to include that, we team up doing that chore and we both enjoy it. Strange, I know).

Not Myself Today

It's called "Pooping in the Pool." It's what a woman does if she doesn't get her way. Instead of smiling and soldiering through, realizing that she doesn't always get her way, she "poops in the pool," messing things up for everyone.

The poor man, for not doing what she wanted, now has to go without sex (or a very cold engagement indeed), a frigid atmosphere pervades the home, Mom and Dad aren't speaking, get the picture.

There's a reason they say, "If Mom ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

But If Camerer's answer above is any indication, he has figured this whole mess out, for apparently the way for things to work out at home is for the man to simply kow-tow to everything the wife wants.

Obey your wife, men. Because SOMEONE has to submit. It's the key to a happy home.


How can this marriage-economic theory of yours apply to SEX? Any examples?

Michael Radosevich

So if I get married, I'll have one year that's happy; then I have to be unhappier and unhappier for only 20 to 25 years, and then I'll be happy again, if I'm still alive or sentient. Um ... no thanks, but thank you for sharing. I'll stick to serial monogamy.

I know there are studies that show that being in "love" only lasts about two years. Here are a few -

A 2005 study from the University of Pavia suggests that romantic love, measured by a brain chemical, lasts only a year on average. After that, it becomes "companion love".

According to some U.K. pollsters, the average romance now lives exactly two years, six months and 25 days.

I'll just stick to serial monogamy and romantic love. Different strokes for different folks. Companion love? Go right ahead, it's just not for me.



What about mutal respect? Why does it always come down to the woman holding out on the man if he does not take out the trash? Marriage can be looked upon somewhat like a business partnership. Each partner has his particular strengths as well as weaknesses. Why not capitalize on one anothers strengths and support and help with the weaknesses. Both parners contributing. A partnership or marriage is supposed to be working towards the same goal - happiness together. They should not be competing or playing games. At some point why cannot both partners/spouses be mature about the chores, tasks, bill paying. Maybe sitting down and writing up a contract of duties should be a prerequisit for getting married. Businesses do it all the time.


Is it financially smarter to be married? Aside from economies of scale often associated with employer-sponsored health insurance, are their other government sponsored financial benefits to getting married?


Will my relationship with my wife change if the law changes to allow no-fault divorce in my country?


In a household where one person is messy and one person is neat, is the assertion "I don't mind the mess" a form of haggling to decrease work by one party?

I married a person who can easily recognize squalor in a restaurant, a hotel, or a gas-station bathroom, but somehow becomes blind to similar disorder at home.

cynical at best

Two lines of questions:
1) At what point does one walk away from a non-performing (marital)) investment? How do "sunk costs" factor in? Should they?
2) Do the authors consider the fact that monogamous human marriage, from an anthropological perspective, is a highly unnatural arrangement? Do they explain its persistence as a social phenomenon AS a victory of economic efficiency? Or something else?