The Economic Model of Marriage

A recent article in the New York Times called “Adam Smith, Marriage Counselor” relates building a successful marriage to economics. This is an very interesting comparison, and the article raises a number of intriguing points. It’s always encouraging to see subjective matters like marriage being successfully informed by objective models like capitalist economics. Applying the rational laws of economics is a useful approach for understanding the successes and shortcomings of a marriage.

Here are the major points raised in the article and how economic systems relate to marriage:

  • Aversion – This is the irrational competitive spirit that can elicit counterproductive behavior. The example the article gives is being compelled to try and win $200 after losing $100, leading to further losses. A major application to marriage is escalation of an argument you know you’re losing. Knowing when to avoid conflict can lead to more harmony with your mate.
  • High information processing costs – This describes the threshold in which a consumer stops being able to successfully choose between products or services due to too many choices. The article gives the example of paralysis in the supermarket when you have fourteen cereal choices. When a person gets irritable with their spouse it is sometimes because there are too many things going on. Understanding that we can only devote a certain amount of time and energy to listening to someone else will help us avoid dissappointmenting a mate. For example going for a run after work can put someone in a great space to chat over dinner.
  • Fluctuations in fairness – A major source of stress in a lot of marriages comes with the perception of a discrepancy between the respective amounts of effort put into the marriage or into parenting by each spouse. The key to getting past this is the knowledge that such discrepancies are usually temporary and often even out over time: the amount of work put in by each spouse often fluctuates throughout the marriage.

Another key point that is not mentioned in this article, but has been explored at length in previous posts on the Amplifier Blog:

  • Examine the partnership – As previously discussed in the post “Marriage and Self-Expansion,” the couples that last and are happiest are the ones in which each spouse “expands” as a result of their marriage. This is surely related to the economic model of marriage: the modern successful marriage is not simply a union, it is a partnership.

It’s useful to apply the successful concepts of economics to understanding the elements of a successful relationship. There are definitely more parallels between economics and romance.

What other parallels between economics and marriage can you think of?


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