Your Spousonomics Questions, Answered

Last week, we solicited your questions for Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson,? co-authors of the new book Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes.

Here are their answers, covering everything from sex to divorce to … gulp … apology. Thanks to all who participated, especially Paula and Jenny.


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. –marbleoc


You and your husband seem to be embracing the law of comparative advantage, in which each of you does what you are relatively better at doing vis-a-vis other chores. If your husband is better at folding and shoveling, and you are better at college planning and homework management, then it is indeed more efficient to specialize and trade.

But you’re peeved, and that’s no good. And let’s face it, specialization and trade has its limits. In a classic economic example, Japan may be better at producing cars than the U.S., which means they should specialize in making cars. However, if Japan simply can’t produce enough cars to meet the entire demand, the U.S. should chip in and make a few Pintos. In your case, your husband may be worse at what you call the psychological chores, but if you’re really stretched for time, or the balance is such that you’re miserable, he may have to move out of his comfort zone and pick up some of your tasks.

Here’s one suggestion: Create a market where no market exists. Your husband may be unaware of all the psychological work that goes into managing a household: Planning menus around picky eaters, researching colleges, making lists, inquiring about friends and activities, worrying about next week’s history test since your kid bombed the last one, wondering if your kids have clean soccer clothes or ate Cool Whip for breakfast. The list can feel endless. But it’s not, and therein lies the solution. For a week, both keep a log of the time you’re spending on your tasks — both the actual time in doing them and the mental time it takes to think about them in advance.

Then you have a number to work with — the denominator so to speak. Add your numerators, or what each of you is putting in. Maybe by seeing the raw numbers of the work you’re doing, your husband will be willing to take on some more tasks. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to be a planner. Most families have one CEO, and those CEOs tend to be women. But by creating a transparent marketplace that reflects what is actually going on, you’ll get a clearer portrait of the tasks at hand. If that doesn’t work, try coordinating the timing of your work, just for a week. Have your husband fold clothes while you’re doing homework with the kids. When he finishes in 10 minutes, maybe find a problem in someone’s homework he might be good at solving and ask that he help with that.


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


Depends on what you think apologizing first does for your reputation. If you think it shows your spouse that you’re flexible, open-minded and reasonable, and that she’ll remember that in future dealings with you, then by all means, try to be first. But if you think it’ll give you a reputation as a sucker, then think twice. Because don’t forget, you might think you’re apologizing “first,” but she actually might decide that since you apologized, you must think she’s right and therefore she doesn’t need to apologize at all. Your “first” apology has suddenly turned into the “only” apology, and that’s where the sucker reputation comes in. In game theory parlance, marriage is a repeated game, which can be a good thing because you can learn from your mistakes and behave differently during the next time around. But it also has a downside, because you can cement a reputation for yourself that she can exploit next time.


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


Everyone dies alone? Kidding! (Not really.) Well, first we’d say that at least this person is thinking the right way — these decisions all come down to opportunity costs, right? Getting married means a potential lifetime of hanging out with your best friend but no more one-night stands with strangers. Staying single means no loved one to cuddle up with at night, procreate with and make you dinner when you’re feeling down.

Economic theories of families have focused on the notion that people only stay married if the benefits of being married outweigh the costs. Of course, the equation was sort of different if you lived in a no-fault divorce state. So I guess we’d say, if you’re on the fence about marrying the only person you’ve ever met whose company you consistently enjoy and who you really like having sex with (even if she or he does some things that really annoy you), then go for it — just make sure you live in a place with no-fault divorces.


How do you avoid the counting-favors game? –Harrison Brookie


Or put another way, how to stop score-keeping? An excellent question and one that applies to virtually every couple, partnership and business relationship on planet earth. Research on incentives shows that counting favors is a double-edged sword. Say you’re trying to construct an agreement for how to pay an employee (or spouse). You could count every little thing he or she does or doesn’t do, and pay for or punish each one. But this signals a lack of trust: Why else would you have to keep such close score? Evidence has shown that when a partner feels a lack of trust, he or she is more likely to cheat the system and less likely to volunteer to do something on his or her own. This is called “crowding out” of intrinsic motivation.


How can this marriage-economic theory of yours apply to sex? Any examples? –m3kw


This marriage-economic theory can help you have more sex, that’s how. It’s a basic tenet of economics that the cheaper something is, the more you want of it (there are deviations from this, explored in behavioral economics, but the general law holds). So make sex cheaper. By “cheaper” we mean less costly to both you and your partner in terms of your time and energy.

Let us explain: We did a professionalized survey, and 54 percent of respondents wanted to be having more sex. The number one reason they weren’t? “Too tired.” Waiting for romance-filled nights of lavender oils and scented candles is not the way to go. Quickies in the shower while the kids are watching SpongeBob? Perhaps. Other solutions: Set sex goals and reward yourselves if you hit them. Figure out the best time of day to do it (Hint: Waiting until your head hits the pillow is not the answer). One couple we interviewed figured out if they had sex after the kids went to bed but before they ate, they were 1) motivated by hunger and 2) not catatonic from dinner. By making it easier, or cheaper, the supply of sex in their household skyrocketed.


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. –Maria


Sounds like you married either a very clever man or a clueless one. Clever in the sense that he knows how to do a cost-benefit analysis: the costs of cleaning the house, for him, outweigh the benefits of living in a clean house, whereas the costs of him cleaning a restaurant, hotel or gas station bathroom are zero (and yes, he’s even cleverer if he says he doesn’t mind the mess in order to get out of working). Clueless in the sense that it didn’t occur to him you would actually notice — and take offense to — his inconsistent reactions to squalor. Because while he’s decided the cost of a dirty house is worth paying, he hasn’t considered the side-effects — also known as externalities — of that dirty house: an annoyed spouse.

We’re guessing that whatever his strategy, he’s winning. It sounds like you’ve grudgingly accepted that the guy’s not going to pull his weight. So what’s your strategy going to be? It sounds like if you want to stop him from free riding, you’ve got to come up with one. Have you considered a mixed strategy, where you keep changing things up so he doesn’t know what to expect? Try, for example, only doing your own laundry. Get a separate hamper for him that he can keep on his side of the bed. You could also do your own dishes and leave his in his hamper, too. Some people might call this hostile — you can reply that you’re merely imposing economic sanctions.


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? –cynical at best


When to walk away is an important question, and sunk costs surely play a role. Interestingly, the emerging data show that the more common challenge seems to be that people have trouble recognizing when not to walk away. A recent study looked at a new law in Korea that required couples to take a three-month cooling off period before getting divorced. This waiting period led to a 20 percent reduction in the number of divorces, suggesting that maybe people were rushing into divorces in what behavioral economists call a “hot state.” Once they had time to think it over, during a “cool state,” come couples decided that their marriage was worth saving. Not knowing much about Korean culture, we can’t say for certain whether the same thing would happen with a U.S. sample, but it does seem like anywhere in the world, a cooling-off period can be a powerful tool.

As for your second question, we’re not so sure about efficiency, but marriage is definitely a victory of hope over experience. For a more thorough answer, though, we’re going to outsource to one of our favorite Freakonomics writers, Justin Wolfers, who, with his partner Betsey Stevenson, proposed a new framework for understanding modern marriage. They write in the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

To remain relevant to the twenty-first century, the economics of the family will need to push beyond the production of own children and traditional notions of specialization, and seek to uncover the forces that yield the modern family form. This may mean reconceiving the notion of household production or, as we argue, extending models of the family beyond the notion of a household-based firm and toward emphasizing motivations such as consumption complementarities and insurance as central to marriage.

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  1. Belinda Gomez says:

    Women tend to turn the psych-op chores into a never-ending list that grows and grows. Maybe finding a way to manage expectations is a better plan.

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  2. MikeM says:

    Wow! I love this blog, read it every day, and love the ideas and insights, but the answers in this particular post made my skin crawl. This is why people don’t like economists.

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  3. James says:

    I think you’ve missed the ball on the messy vs neat question, or perhaps you deliberately sidestepped it by turning it into dirty vs clean?

    I prefer a reasonable degree of mess – it’s easier leaving things where I used them last (because I may need them there again soon) than to expend the time and energy needed to continually tidy them away – but it needs to be a clean mess.

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  4. AaronS says:

    The “counting-favors” game seems to be related to those bosses who watch their employees and the clock too closely. A boss who docks an employee for being two minutes late, or stands over their shoulders, will get “paid back” by stolen time in other places and the such like.

    I didn’t realize what it was called, but I knew that it happened when people felt that a company was trying to wring every last drop of output from them, instead of giving them some breathing room.

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  5. Chuck says:

    It would be interesting to hear from an economist that approves of marriage.

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  6. Greg says:

    To the person in question #1: many of those psychological chores should be done by your children. It is their homework have them do it. If they need help with a question or two then that should take just a couple of minutes. As far as the college application process goes, who is going to college you are your child. I think your child should fill out the application. Let’s face it you know what type of student your child is by now. So there should be a range of colleges he/she could get in. How much freaking research needs to be done. Hey why don’t you ask the child what school(s) he/she wants to go to? That should narrow down the research and plus everything is on the net these days if you have 5 colleges you should be able to get a pretty good picture of what the school is like in about 1 to 2 hours at most. I think your child could do this research.

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  7. Steve says:

    On messy vs. neat. While the hamper solution may work just for clothing, I’ve found that a broader version is outstanding for general clutter.

    If your spouse has an office, desk area, workshop, or some other space that is just theirs and somewhat out of the way, get permission to put their personal clutter into their personal space rather than putting it all away. Even a cabinet with a door can work.

    You get the benefit of being able to just shove the clutter into someone else’s space, which takes far less time and thought than really finding a place for everything. They get the dual benefit of not getting nagged about the living room being too messy for company, and having a good idea where any missing item can be found.

    Long term, you get two more benefits. First, once the pattern has been established, if you ask your spouse to straighten up their things, they can simply pile them into the staging area and feel like they’ve complied with your request. Second, some items they use regularly and habitually leave sitting out will simply come to live in the staging area. If you’re lucky, all of their “arriving home from work” stuff will end up in that category!

    One warning. Unless there’s some pressing need (guests on the way), don’t pick up after someone immediately after they set something down! Give a day or at least a significant event (dinner, if the items are on the dinner table) before you move something. It will stop you from following them around picking stuff up, and it will give them a respectful amount of time to get the job done themselves.

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  8. Jessica says:

    “Staying single means no loved one to cuddle up with at night, procreate with and make you dinner when you’re feeling down.”

    Thanks for continuing the tired old single stereotypes!

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