The Good Spousekeeping Guide

A new book claims that to be the best possible partner, you need to apply a little economics into your love life. Here’s how to invest
Thursday , 14 July 2011
The Good Spousekeeping Guide
The good Spousekeeping Guide

Whether you’re married, in a couple or single, chances are you’ve had arguments at some point in your life with a significant other about either buying milk, leaving wet towels on the floor or why Sky Sports has to be on in the bedroom until 3am. Oh, we’ve all been there. Thankfully, though, we’re all in it together as, according to new research, the average couple argue a whopping 312 times a year. Of those, 46 per cent are about household chores, 64 per cent are about intimacy (or lack there of) and 36 per cent are about taking each other for granted.

So, what’s the problem? If financial journalists and co-authors of new relationship book Spousonomics (Random House, Dhs60), Jenny Anderson and Paula Szuchman, are to be believed, it’s not about compatibility, communicating or the fact that women may be from Venus and men from Mars. It’s all about, er, economics. “Love is a wonderful bond, but it’s not enough to keep a relationship intact for the long haul,” states Szuchman.

The book, which offers a new twist to standard keep-it-together advice, is based on the idea that marriage is a two-person business, with time and libido as the limited resources. According to them, in the same way that an economy stays intact, to keep your relationship ticking over successfully you need to allocate time, money and energy efficiently – a failure to do so will result in a failure in the market (ie your relationship). Okay, so we spent most of our school economics lessons thinking about New Kids on the Block, but their theory unites this field: the study of how to pool and distribute resources to achieve the best results with the problems of marriage. Whoever said love and money don’t mix? Read on to find out how to skip a love dip and send your relationship assets soaring…

Comparative advantage (or why you should take the rubbish out)

It’s 10.15pm and you’re still in the office. The proposal that Atif from accounts was supposed to write has found its way onto your shoulders, and Kate from sales has slipped her unfinished report into your intray. What’s wrong with this picture? “One of the most important things companies have to tackle if they plan to get anything accomplished is a realistic division of labour,” explains Szuchman. “While you might have the skills and ability to complete multiple tasks, it’s simply not efficient to muddle along, swapping or allotting responsibilities randomly – and the same goes in marriage.” She continues, “If one person feels resentful about the fact that they contribute too much, the market system (marriage) verges on collapse. The division of labour doesn’t have to be 50/50, but it does have to feel fair.”

Invest for the best: So you’re thinking; ‘finally, he gets to scrub the bathroom tiles (hallelujah!)’, but before you draw up a rota that puts him on recycling duty five nights a week, Anderson and Szuchman recommend utilising the theories of ‘comparative advantage’ – when an individual takes on a role because they do it more efficiently than anybody else. “Good organisers don’t take on every task, just the ones that they’re good at, which is why certain people are hired for certain roles,” explains Anderson. “Studies show that people tend to be better at chores they care about, so make a list of tasks and divide jobs accordingly.” If clean tiles are something you care about, make that your responsibility. Likewise, if he enjoys sorting out the computer stuff, put that on his list of duties.”

Moral hazard (or you should slick on some lippie sometimes)

Think back to a time when you had your hair colourist on speed dial and a gym membership? If the memories are as distant as Jude and Sienna, it’s possible you’ve hit a moral hazard. In economic terms, this phrase describes how people with money are tempted to behave more recklessly than those without, (remember the bankers who brought down the US economy?). And when it comes to marriage, the same principle applies – if you assume that because you’ve invested time over the years, that you no longer need to make such an effort, you could be heading for a crisis.

Invest for the best: “Since we promise to stick together through sickness and health, bad debts and impossible teenagers, after time you might ask yourself, ‘What’s the point in getting dressed up?’” says Anderson. “For some people, marriage is a blank cheque to stop exercising, start eating lemon tarts for breakfast and giving up all efforts at having interesting conversations.” But if you don’t want to be in a moral hazard minefield, she advises that you view marriage as the perfect excuse to invest in improving your partnership. Szuchman adds, “You wouldn’t use a nasty tone with a colleague or friend, so don’t do it with your partner. Likewise, on a physical level, it’s fantastic to feel attractive with the same person who sees you sleep in his football shirt. Avoiding moral hazards is about not resting on your laurels but about making a little more effort in all areas of your relationship.

Supply and demand (or it’s time to get connected)

Anderson and Szuchman’s research revealed that 54 per cent of married couples wished they were getting intimate more often. The number one reason there’s no action between the sheets? Tiredness. According to Szuchman, it all comes down to cost. “When the cost of something grows too high, we want less of it. So when the cost of getting intimate becomes too high – in the sense that you might have to give up 15 minutes of precious sleep to divulge in it – many people would rather opt out,” she explains. “When the cost of something is cheaper – so we don’t lose anything and reap the benefits by divulging in it – demand soars.”

Invest for the best: “If you’re exhausted, it’s a bath and a book that’s going to grab you,” says Anderson. Instead, she proposes making bouts of passion as easy as possible. “Agree with your husband to spend quality time together once a week on a specific day, rather than waiting for the right moment to take you both. That way, the pressure is off of you to be in the mood – but if you’ve decided on a day you have to stick to it.” It doesn’t sound very romantic, but chances are that the anticipation of knowing it’s going to happen will stop you feeling less tired and more energetic and, as Anderson points out, “Passion is a bit like exercise: sometimes hard to get going, but who really regrets it after you’re underway?”

Loss aversion (or you can go to bed on an argument)

Ever had one of those arguments when you can’t remember what you were originally fighting about? Anderson and Szuchman’s studies found that 34 per cent of people admit to the same crime and, worse still, another 34 per cent admit they will keep fighting, even if they know that they’re wrong. Why? “Because we hate to lose,” says Anderson. “We hate it so much that we do everything we can not to lose, only to lose more (time, energy – not to mention our dignities) in the process.” In economic terms, the fear of losing is known as ‘loss aversion’ and research has proved that often traders frequently hold on to losing stocks more than winning ones, because they hate to admit defeat. Anderson continues, “In marriage, loss aversion translates to escalating a fight because we want to win – not because we want to resolve the issue.”

Invest for the best: Take a 24-hour time out. “We can be so keen not to lose a fight that we stay up all night arguing,” says Anderson. “We refuse to compromise, apologise or back down. However, if you agree to take a time out, even if it means sleeping on the argument, this allows you to cool down and think rationally. After 24 hours, broach the topic again with a clear head.”

Incentives (or how to get what you want)

We’ve all heard about those trumped up City boys and their astronomical bonuses – it’s the lifeblood of the finance industry, and what keeps the Wall Street brigade risking it all. According to Szuchman, marriage is really a business venture that requires investment, management and organisation. So if you’re not getting what your want from your partner, a few incentives might do the trick. “Women tend to use anger, nagging and punishments to get their husbands to do what they want,” says Sczuchman, “but while these methods may work in the short term, in the long term men start to retreat, which only makes women angrier.”

Invest for the best: To get your man to do what you want him to, Anderson suggests praise. “Praise can be twice as effective as nagging. Trust someone to do the right thing and the odds are they’ll do it. So, if he forgets to do the washing, subtly remind him by handing him something that needs to go in the laundry.” In addition, if all else fails, she proposes that you try a bit of good old-fashioned revenge, known in the economic world as ‘coercive incentive’. “If your husband consistently leaves a wet towel on your side of the bed after a bath, do the same to him so that he knows what it feels like!” A little trixy, a little conniving, but it just might work… a little like economics!