The XX Factor

Can Economics Save a Marriage?

Whatever works. Business news editor Paula Szuchman says looking at her marriage from an economic perspective-for her, a familiar vocabulary-persuaded her to stop nagging and rescued her marriage: “a relationship bubble that burst.” As she tells it in an  essay for  Newsweek , nagging her husband about closed cabinets was no incentive. It backfired in more and opener cabinets. When she dropped the nagging, he fixed the problem on his own. They didn’t divide housework 50/50, but maximized efficiency by specializing, a la Adam Smith. Her favorite concept? Understanding loss aversion. Go to bed angry, she says, and avoid the arguments that escalate just because neither of you wants to lose. “Nine times out of ten,” she says, “the dispute gets resolved that morning.”

I’d agree with that last piece of advice (although I’d modify it by saying that nine times out of ten, the dispute has evaporated by the next morning). I agree with much of the relationship advice Szuchman offers there, and am sure I’d agree, too, with the techniques Szuchman and co-author Jenny Anderson propose in their book,  Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes (reviewed  here on Bloomberg News, and discussed, along with Jess’ great Home Economics series, at a recent DoubleX event ). (I might draw the line at making sex “cheaper”-by decreasing the cost in time-to “sell” more.) But I’m intrigued less by the advice itself (clever and timely as the presentation is) than by the application of yet another discipline to to family life. Spousonomics reminds me of those who would use the words of Cesar Milan, Dog Whisperer, in raising their kids or  apply the principles of animal training to their marriages .  Weird as it sounds, for some people, it works. So why not economics?

Sure, economics has a reputation as a dry discipline. But maybe any discipline at all is better than none when it comes to focusing on marriage and family. You could apply the  seven habits of highly effective fame. You could turn to the Bible. You could probably go all David Allen on your marriage and Get Things Done, or de-clutter it when It’s All Too Much. The key is surely less the particular advice than the desire to follow any advice at all. Can economics save your marriage? I think it can-if your marriage really wants to be saved.