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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.