Spousonomics: The business of marriage

Forget romance – according to a new book, division of labour and incentivisation hold the key to domestic bliss. Heidi Scrimgeour tests 'spousonomics'

Last night, after my husband had gone to bed, I did something I've never done before. This morning, disbelieving, I open my underwear drawer to check I didn't dream it, but the evidence is there, incontrovertible. Realising it will be impossible to hide my actions from my husband, I nudge him awake, and with my eyes closed in recognition of the solemnity of this moment, I confess: "Darling, last night, I put away the washing. All of it. The towering piles of clean laundry that usually perch precariously on every available surface in our bedroom – they're all gone."

Suddenly our sons burst into the room, as excited as if Father Christmas had paid them a bonus visit. "Mum, my drawers aren't empty any more!" the six-year-old cries. My husband opens his drawers to row upon row of clean socks and pants, neatly folded. Incredulous, he whispers a heartfelt "Thank you". For the first time in six years I have folded our freshly laundered clothes and put them all away instead of piling them up like an impromptu Tracey Emin installation.

So what prompted my epiphany and heralded the toppling of the terrifying laundry tower? Spousonomics: a new book that claims economics is the surest route to marital bliss. Authors Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, journalists from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, see marriage as a speculative venture. Their book aims to teach you how to maximise returns on the biggest investment of your life, and they write: "You have no good reason to think it will pay off – roughly half of all marriages don't – but you buy into it anyway, hoping, assuming, betting the odds that you're one of the 50 per cent for whom it will pay off. But here's the rub: the only way you stand a chance of success is if you treat your marriage like a long-term investment, sticking it out when the going gets tough, profits stagnate and shareholders revolt."

The authors believe economics provides dispassionate, logical solutions to the complex domestic disputes that blight many an otherwise happy union. The premise of Spousonomics is that every relationship is its own little economy; a business of two with a finite number of resources that must be allocated efficiently in order to be profitable. "For all intents and purposes, your marriage is a business, a business that flourishes in boom times but at other times feels like running a marathon the morning after a night of too many margaritas. It feels like work."

Spousonomics advises making marriage work by applying economic principles such as division of labour (how to determine who does what), supply and demand (yes, how to have more sex) and loss aversion (or how to get over our fear of losing, and stop having the same arguments repeatedly).

A romantic at heart with no head for figures, I balked at the idea that economics has anything to teach us about relationships. When I said "I do" I signed up for hearts and flowers, not spreadsheets and flow charts. And economics is far from sexy. Its proponents aren't exactly renowned for their quixotic tendencies and, by the authors' own admission, economics is synonymous with "the dismal science", not the language of love.

We are a couple, not a corporation. I don't want a "partner" with whom to "trade" household tasks on the basis of their "market value", or one who needs to be "incentivised" to pick his own pants up off the bathroom floor. I want a soulmate who understands my needs and meets them because he loves me, not because of the return he might get on his "investment".

But I discovered that our needs aren't as obvious as we think, and that even soulmates have their off days. To our surprise, spousonomics put paid to those infuriating squabbles that can ruin a weekend and breed lingering resentments.

According to the authors, domestic tasks are one of the most divisive issues couples face, and the disputes they engender rank high on the list of things that can unravel a relationship. But Szuchman and Anderson believe housework wars can be resolved by division of labour, a concept formed in 1776 by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics.

According to division of labour, our first mistake, and the root cause of my washing mountain, was assigning our household chores inefficiently. We had muddled through on the vague notion that we'd each do our bit. Except my idea of his "bit" and his idea of my "bit" weren't quite aligned. Consequently, lots of household tasks were left undone and we were duplicating effort. The laundry, meanwhile, piled up all around us.

We learnt, instead, to talk about the chores that matter to us and divvy up the domestic tasks according to comparative advantage (or who fulfils each task most efficiently), an economic theory, defined by British economist David Ricardo, which is the foundation of free trade. The premise is that instead of a country trying to produce every product its people need, it should specialise in a smaller number of goods and services, and trade them with other countries in return for the things they produce more efficiently.

Admittedly that prompted a robust discussion about our respective strengths – it turns out we both think we're the only one who knows how to load a dishwasher properly – but the upshot is laundry is officially my domain and I'm off the hook when it comes to gardening and recycling.

I also learnt that I care about the state of the garden, and that I reach an irrational conclusion that my husband doesn't care for us if he doesn't employ psychic powers and plant daffodils or water-blast the brickwork at my whim.

Conversely, I learnt that my husband wants responsibility for our finances even though I'm probably more efficient at the related paperwork, but that he'd quite happily be absolved of car maintenance.

But as I've said, the real revelation came late at night, over a cornucopia of laundry. I realised that I procrastinate in a misguided act of rebellion, fuelled by resentment that I have become the unwilling chief washerwoman for three other human beings. But my rebellion backfires on me because I am routinely forced to spend weekends wading through lone socks and looking for long-lost items of school uniform.

Which brings me to another economic principle. Workers need to be incentivised, and are unlikely to do even the jobs they commit to unless adequately recompensed, though Spousonomics states that caring about the outcome is sometimes reward enough. Incentives – in the form of bonuses – are a cornerstone of modern economics, the authors write. "Pay workers an hourly wage and you will get an hourly-wage type of performance; offer workers the promise of a windfall and they will work as if their lives and the lives of their children, their mothers, their accountants and their pet chihuahuas depended on it." Applying this principle to your marital economy should mean that everyone's performance skyrockets.

It works. Laundry is a thankless task, but acknowledging that we'd all prefer clothes in our drawers instead of imprisoned in a menacing mountain was incentive enough for me to get on with it. And waking up to a weekend blissfully un-blighted by hours of hunting for errant items of PE kit incentivised me to keep it up.

It's catching, too. Suddenly the garden is much less unsightly, and the mouldy jam jars and empty wine bottles have all vanished from the kitchen. And when I recently indulged my husband in a rare Sunday morning lie-in, he didn't spot my tactics but mused that he felt he was benefiting unfairly from our experiment with spousonomics. (Little did he realise his lie-in was just an incentive to encourage him to keep up his investment in our marital economy – and the price I'm willing to pay in exchange for several hours off from child care to write in peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon.)

But my favourite spousonomic is the bubble theory, or the idea that a marriage is subject to the same "cycle" as the economy, and can consequently find itself in a recession. "In technical terms, a bubble forms when prices for something rise way beyond its actual worth. They rise because people believe those prices will only keep rising, no matter how absurd they get." Then the bubble bursts, and a bust follows. Spousonomics offers insight into what can cause a bubble in a marital economy, how to identify bubbles before they get out of hand, and how to recover if the bubble bursts. Having known both "bubble" and "bust" years during 12 years of marriage, I took comfort from the idea that our experience is normal – that's just the way economies roll – and that with care we can nip bubbles in the bud and work to ensure we don't go bust.

Spousonomics warns that housework isn't a trivial aspect of marriage to be figured out as you go along. It can be a reason why marriages fail. After all, what hope is there for resolving serious conflicts if you can't tackle whose turn it is to clean the toilet?

I have Spousonomics to thank for a much less chaotic household and an airing cupboard well stocked with a week's worth of clean school uniforms. It might not seem like rocket science, but as I spend Sunday night relaxing on the sofa instead of seething with resentment and muttering about the mess, I reckon it's not far off.

Managing your marriage

* British economist David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage states that it's more efficient to do the tasks you're relatively better at compared with other tasks. So leave dinner to your other half and get on with the vacuuming.

* American economist Edward P Lazear writes that paying workers on the basis of output will increase their output. The secret to persuading your spouse to do the jobs they hate is simply a question of finding the right incentive.

* If the price of petrol gets too high, you use your car less. Likewise, if having sex carries too many costs – too much time or energy – you'll do it less. If you'd like more action, the key is to reduce the cost. Be more transparent, reset your habits, and send the right signals to your partner.

Life and Style
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