For Love and Money

A new book tries to use the principles of economics to teach about relationships.

Imagine that you awoke this morning to find your significant other offering you a hot cup of coffee and $62.79, the market cost of a dozen roses. As a longtime and very rational couple, you generally do not recognize the holiday, of course: You know it is but a red-clad, chocolate-flavored ruse to get you to spend money on things that you don’t need, like expensive candle-lit dinners where you don’t even get to choose what to eat. Nevertheless, you appreciate the joe and the cash—your S.O. romantically demonstrating an understanding of the importance of caffeine and Hansonian signaling, all at once.

Perhaps that is how the holiday goes in some economists’ homes. And perhaps it is how the holiday could go in your home, too—with today and all days a vision of efficiency, care, and satisfaction. Just in time for Valentine’s, two journalists, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, have endeavored to show you the way. In their book Spousonomics—complete with a big heart with a pie chart in it on the cover—they promise to teach you how to use economics “to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes.”

The book starts with two basic premises. First, relationships exist in a world with scarce resources: time, money, humor, patience, breakfast cereal. Second, the field of economics has a lot to say about worlds with scarce resources. Szuchman and Anderson describe 10 big economic principles and many more small ones to recognize or apply at home in service of a better relationship. “By thinking like an economist, you can have a marriage that not only takes less work, but that feels like a vacation from work,” the book promises.

What does that better relationship look like? They spell it out: One where you “have more sex, wash fewer dishes, argue more efficiently, have more sex, survive the lean years, negotiate more successfully, have more sex, and, believe it or not, get your spouse to do things he’s never done before, like clean the gutters. Or listen.” That laundry list sounds pretty good—and, for the curious, the book keeps up the randy tone, perhaps in order to distract readers from phrases like “hyperbolic discounting” and “intertemporal choice” and “Nash equilibrium.”

It romps through descriptions of relationship problems in terms of economic principles. Then, it opens up “case studies”—examples from dozens of interviews with real-life couples—to show how economics might help at home. For instance, Angela adores Bill but has trouble telling him when she is angry and feels frustrated by his lack of follow-through on simple chores. When a door breaks, rather than passive-aggressively stewing, she coos how much she likes a man with a hammer in his hands. Voila: The door gets fixed the next day. (What Econ 101 principle is that? Asymmetric information: Bill does not know to prioritize fixing the door unless Angela tells him.)

Or take Ingrid and Mike, who learn to use game theory to resolve their disputes. They both have high-powered jobs. But Mike’s a slob, and Ingrid keeps on picking up after him, to her chagrin and the detriment of her social life. In economic terms, Mike is a “free rider.” Ingrid solves the problem by defining the best results she feels she can reasonably expect and then keeping Mike on his toes—leaving him with no clean socks, then a cluttered coffee table—to cajole him into cleaning.

But wait, you might say. Maybe you recognize both of those problems and those solutions, and you don’t need fancy economic terminology to tell you how to get your partner to fix a door or clean the bathroom. And you would be right. Woe to the lovers who attempt to keep the peace at home and the romance alive through the academic teachings of Ricardo and Smith, rather than the commonsense teachings of Yoffe and Orman or, really, one’s mother.

But happy is the student who learns economics through the teachings of Szuchman and Anderson. Indeed, the book underscores that economics merely attempts to describe the dynamics all around us—romantic or practical, in the home or in global markets. You can diagnose every argument or describe every unexpected gift in academic, economic terminology. But you hardly need to.

So, rather than focusing on dismal science and dry terminology this Valentine’s Day, head to Szuchman and Anderson’s site to read about how economists act in their own relationships. There are no signs of academics actually offering one another $62.79 in cash, rather than candy or flowers, for Valentine’s. But there is plenty of good, even adorable advice.

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