Economics and Open Marriage

(Photo: Charles Fettinger)

I have to admit that it counts as one of the more bizarre requests of my scholarly life.  After all, I’m just a straight-laced economist. But in light of the Gingrich affair — (which one? the one involving his wife’s accusation that he asked for an open marriage) — the New York Times Room for Debate section asked Betsey Stevenson and me to give an economist’s perspective on open marriage. 

We thought about each doing it with a coauthor, but decided it would be more fun to do together. Here’s what we came up with:

Married life has changed enormously over the past century. We can now control our fertility; women expect to work in the market; domestic chores have been fundamentally altered by technology; and sexual mores have changed. Yet most couples still sign on to the same marriage contract that their grandparents did.

In both our working and romantic relationships, we live under “at-will” rules: either party can end the relationship if it isn’t working for them. But in our employment relationships we negotiate individualized terms directly with our bosses, haggling over wages, benefits, working hours, job tasks and vacation days. This individual contracting lets you define the relationship that works best for both you and your boss. We should take the same approach to our romantic relationships.

Marriage can be strengthened by shifting to individualized marital contracts that emphasize those things essential to making each relationship work. Is “forsaking all others” essential? What about splitting the housework? Should we live near my parents, yours, or neither? Who stays home from work when the kids are sick? Should we be spenders or savers? Will we retire at 55 or 75? How many kids? How will we allocate time between work, family, friends and each other?

These questions are at the heart of married life, but only one of them — sexual fidelity — is in the standard marriage contract.

Why is it that people continue to sign on to the same default marriage contract as their grandparents?

Perhaps we’re stuck in a bad equilibrium, in which couples are afraid to suggest a novel marriage contract out of fear that it will be interpreted as bad faith. Imagine suggesting to your fiancée that you want to avoid divorce so much that while you’ll promise to “try” to be faithful, you don’t think infidelity should be a firing offense. The problem is that your fiancée may infer that you want leniency in the agreement because you plan to be unfaithful. And before you know it, the wedding’s been called off. Better not to raise the issue.

The result is that many couples end up agreeing to the same centuries-old contract that has not changed, even as marriage has.

And what would an individualized marriage contract look like?

For some, it will be an even split of the housework. For others, careers will play a paramount role. And if there’s ever a fourth Mrs. Gingrich, before she says “I do,” she would be wise to insist on a frank discussion of the importance of sexual fidelity.

I’m pretty sure that this is the only time I’ll ever see my writing on the same page as popular sex columnist Dan Savage. (It’s an honor.)

You can read the full piece here.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    So if we abolish the government’s interest in making marriage a legal issue–

    Let’s grant that protection of children is society’s main interest in the marriage bond. Let’s also grant that women can get pregnant even in a relationship where there is a “no babies” understanding. So people must arrange for financial responsibility for their progeny, even when there was never an intent to have children, and whether or not there is an emotional bond with the progeny.

    What comes to mind is a sort of sexual liability insurance policy, in the same way as we have auto insurance and homeowner’s insurance. It couldn’t cost more than what we presently have….

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
  2. Natalia says:

    “We thought about each doing it with a coauthor, but decided it would be more fun to do together.”. Was this a metaphor of choices within your partnership with Betsey?
    Good and open-minded positioning, although the consequences -in terms of incentives, gender differences, etc- of an open-marriage contract could be explored more deeply, at least in the blog. Any chances of getting data on that?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  3. Smaug says:

    On three occasions in the last three years, severe violence has resulted from adultery in my little bedroom, violence-free community, twice from people I know who you would not in your wildest dreams think of as someone who could be moved to strike another. In one case it was violence that changed the life of both the victim and the perpetrator.

    Most people, I think, don’t understand the murderous intent that comes over someone caught by infidelity by surprise. That is why, I believe, the current legal system recognizes crimes of passion to some degree, and that most Western civilizations throughout the centuries have had laws punishing the adulterous, from fault divorces to shunning to stoning.

    I think it is hip and PC to accept adultery in our society and TV shows like Desperate Housewives wouldn’t have a plot without it. But it causes incredible pain. And even on those shows somebody usually gets punched out.

    I don’t know how this can be remedied in our current society…I mean, if Clinton can have a public reputation resurrection after adultery led to purgery, impeachment, and disbarring, it almost has become like adultery is an excuse and alibi rather than a lie and crime.

    Really, if you are going to sneak around and lie and potentially bring home social diseases and babies and bring the secrets known by a third party to hang like a bomb over your family…why get married? I think that there should be penalties, at the very least a fault divorce settlement for the betrayed partner.

    Now, open marriage….sort of the same thing I guess, why bother? Do it to raise kids? I suppose…but are they raised in a web of lies, or do they know about all the secrecy? It may sound good on paper, but who are these third and fourth parties? Married? Violent jealous significant others? STDs? Litigious and psycho after a breakup?

    I mean, I’m a libertarian…gay marriage, whatever, none of the government’s business, and if you would remove the marriage benefit from taxes and healthcare insurance and so many things in our society maybe this all goes away and the people who don’t truly want a committed relationship won’t seek to get married.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 7
    • Des says:

      Adultery and open marriage are no more the same than throwing a ball AT someone is like throwing it TO them. In the former, someone got hurt because they were not expecting what was coming. In the latter, there is an agreement between the parties. No one would argue that adultery isn’t horribly painful, but that isn’t what is being discussed here.

      My husband and I are very much truly committed to one another. We have been married for 8 years and have build a life together. We share everything with one another: our plans, our money, our home, our very lives. That has nothing to do with monogamy. Would you say that couples who don’t join their bank accounts aren’t “truly committed” and should never marry for that reason? What about couples who have different hobbies from one another? On the flip side, would you say that teenagers that have sex should get married, because sex and marriage should be one in the same?

      Do you tell the kids? Well, do your kids know the details of your sexual preferences? Probably not. Who are the third parties? Usually other married folks who have the same arrangement, or singles that aren’t looking for a permanent relationship. Its as easy to screen out “litigious psychos” as it was when you were merely dating (or, are you against dating too?)

      We didn’t marry for tax or healthcare benefits (we were too young to really understand those anyway). We married because we loved each other and were committed to doing so as long as we both shall live. You could take away those benefits and we would still have married in a heartbeat. In fact if I had to do it all over I would have married him sooner :)

      You are so vehemently opposed to the idea because you have been socially conditioned to react that way, not because it makes any real, logical sense.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 7
      • Smaug says:

        I think when you say you are “truly committed to each other” and that “doesn’t mean monogamy” you are taking a stance that is way, way out of the regular human condition in most people’s opinion.

        You say you share everything but you don’t mention kids. Would that change your worldview? Do you think children, biologically wired to hope for the security of a monogamous nuclear unit, are going to feel secure seeing mommy’s buyfriends floating in and out, or enjoy the tittering and gossip as it becomes obvious and known?

        And if your answer is that it all remains a secret from kids and families and friends….what does that say? You can talk yourself into the morality of it all you want, but living in secrecy and lies speaks volumes about any behavior. And I suppose you could find some weak analogy, but this is a, or the, central factor of most people’s lives.

        At any rate, you make a point. I am talking about adultery, you are talking about open marriage. (shrug) What do I care what people choose to do in their relationships… it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

        The real time debate about this is about Gingrich. His wife was not a willing participant who knowingly went into an open marriage. She was somebody being extorted, in effect, by an adulterer. And I suspect the vast amount– strike — a LOT of people who find themselves in secret “open” marriages are, in reality, in that situation.

        If you can know and imagine your mate being intimate with someone else and not have it hurt you, I would say that you either aren’t truly in love, or have some mental health issues.

        Peace out.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13
  4. Caleb b says:

    biologically speaking, humans have developed monogamy as a reproductive strategy, like other types of animals. Religion has encouraged this strategy and so has culture, but fundamentally, it’s part of human instincts – more specifically female instincts.

    Of course, the most optimal strategy for females is to mate with the best male and live with the male that can best take care of the offspring, but if the baby doesn’t look enough like the “father” it will be rejected.

    I.E. We’re still just hairless apes and we act accordingly – more than we think.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5
    • Arsun says:

      Generally, men are polygamous and women are hypergamous. Their junction is a world where women only choose the top sliver of men, the top sliver of men dominate all the women, and a large and disgruntled bachelor pool either raids other villages or kills off the “winners” for jealousy.

      Large and stable societies need to rein in both their impulses. Hence, monogamy: by its terms, the men can’t sleep around and the women can’t just shop around. Most of the time, this works. Obviously men do sleep around, and women do shop around. While we take men to task, the women occasionally get passes.

      This is a source of much angst.

      To chalk all this up to primitive nature, however, is to ignore the fascinating game theory at work. You ever play chess or Go? This is way harder.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 7
      • nobody.really says:

        HEY! Is this an econ blog or what? Where’s the discussion of “monopoly” and “market segmentation” and such?

        ”Generally, men are polygamous and women are hypergamous. Their junction is a world where women only choose the top sliver of men, the top sliver of men dominate all the women, and a large and disgruntled bachelor pool either raids other villages or kills off the ‘winners’ for jealousy.

        Large and stable societies need to rein in both their impulses.”

        Who would want government interfering with our choice of mates? Most people, apparently: bigamy is outlawed throughout the West.

        To understand monogamy, you need to look as societies that lack it (including other societies of primates, if you like). In those societies, high-status men attract many women – both high- and low-status – and low status men attract none. Seen from this vantage point, monogamy appears to be a social convention that transfers benefits from high-status men and lower-status women to lower-status men and high-status women. Crudely, it’s a means of ensuring that geeks get laid.

        How does it come to pass that a policy that deprives high-status men of more opportunities would become so dominant? Don’t high-status men create the laws?

        I have to suspect that there’s something adaptive about prohibitions on bigamy. Perhaps monogamy is so common because societies with it have proven more adaptive over time. Arguably marriage has salutary effects on people – especially men. Think about what this implies for the many societies, especially China, in which the birth rate for boys vastly exceeds the birthrate for girls….

        (Admittedly, prohibitions of bigamy are not the same as prohibitions on open marriage, but it’s kinda related, right?)

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Ulysses says:

    At least according to popular depictions, mob kingpins and, say, entertainment mogul types, pretty frequently have these kinds of marriage arrangements. You have the “mother of your children” and then you have various girlfriends. It’s not necessarily “agreed upon” but it’s kind of understood and “dealt with.” Honestly, though, I think as many people do this type of thing as people who want to do it. I doubt it has much to do with societal pressure and norms as it does with “love” and jealousy and devotion.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  6. jonathan says:

    As a criticism, this is what couples have been doing for generations, certainly since housework stopped being an all day, all week job. Take away the massive time spent on laundry and basic cooking and while you still saw and still see traditional gender roles all couples negotiate their terms. Heck, the temperance movement gained traction because men were spending so much time in bars drinking and hanging out with other men. One can see much of the appeal in temperance was the inability of women to negotiate better individual marriage deals while so much liquor was available and in the face of so much social pressure for male drinking. That affected enough people that a movement developed and attracted those who became worried about those effects.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  7. SciFiFan says:

    Robert Heinlein explored contractual marriage in his book about the (succesful!) uprising of a lunar colony against the governments of Earth. Check out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Robert was an oddball, no doubt (see his take on a time traveling character’s fictionalized affair with the character’s own mother in Time Enough for Love) but who says you have to be right 100% of the time anyway?

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  8. Dollars and Sex says:

    I have been thinking lately that we have lost the plot on marriage vows. Historically marriage vows have laid out the terms of the contract explicitly; couples stated their vows in front of their community of family and friends and then signed their marriage contract.

    Now marriage vows are a chance to tell your partner that they are best friend and how you can’t imagine living a single day of your life without them, which is all very nice. But that isn’t the terms of the contract that is about to be signed. Couples want to reject the old vows, which is fair enough, but they are reluctant to replace them with new vows that are meaningful in the contractual sense.

    I am not saying that people want to stand in front of their family and say things like “I promise to protect you from infection if I decide to have sex with another, and to keep the secret of that affair in my heart always so that you do not find out that I have been screwing around.”

    But I agree with Justin that the terms of the contract should discussed openly before the marriage and I would take it even further and say that marriage vows should at least be symbolic of that contract.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0