wOw: What gave you the idea that economics, of all things, might provide the key to a happy marriage?
Paula Szuchman: Economics sounds like a counterintuitive approach — people hear the word and think about GDP and balanced budgets. But at its core, economics is actually the study of the allocation of scarce resources, or how societies can make smart tradeoffs when resources are limited. We think that has a lot to do with marriage. Couples are also trying to figure out how to allocate their resources, be they work time, leisure time, money, patience or libido. And since much of what goes on in a marriage is business—housework, child-rearing, bills–we think it makes sense to look for ways to allocate your resources more efficiently so that the business side of your marriage can run more smoothly and with less bickering.
wOw: Was writing this book rough on your husbands? Were they willing to provide real-life experiences to help provide fodder for the book?
PS: It was rough on our marriages. For some reason, it didn’t occur to us that writing a book, holding down full-time jobs, having babies (we had a total of 3 between the two of us while writing the book) and also being good spouses was kind of a Herculean task. But we made it through thanks in large part to the help of our husbands, who most of the time picked up the slack at home, knowing they, too, were making a tradeoff: help out more around the house now, and benefit from wife’s massive book sales later (ha). And yes, even though they initially said they didn’t want to be featured in the book, they ultimately agreed to it in service to those massive book sales.
wOw: Your book advises people to go to bed angry, even though that’s completely against the conventional wisdom. Why is this a better policy?
PS: Because it gives you time to cool off, get some sleep and revisit in the morning with a clearer head. The conventional wisdom is well intentioned, but, I think, misinterpreted. You shouldn’t go to bed angry if there’s a dispute you can resolve quickly and without leaving hurt feelings, i.e. “It upset me that you didn’t clear your plate after dinner.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll try to remember to clear it next time.” But how often does a dispute at the end of the day after you’ve both spent ten hours at the office, put the kids to bed, eaten dinner and answered all those pressing emails, resolve that seamlessly? Very rarely. Most of the time, such arguments quickly escalate. One reason they spiral out of control is loss aversion, which is the term economists use to describe our intense aversion to losing — so intense that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid losing and act extremely irrationally in the face of loss. Loss aversion is why people bet the house when they’re down. And it’s why we dig in our heels and insist on winning an argument, even if it’s midnight and we need to get up at 6 a.m. the next day. The best way to combat loss aversion is to take a time out. Come back later when the fear of losing has been replaced by the desire to resolve an argument and move on, ideally with an ounce of goodwill still left for the other person. So if that means going to bed angry, go for it. Sleep is never a bad thing.
wOw: You assert that affordability is the key to having a better sex life. How so?
PS: The general rule in economics is that when the cost of something goes down, demand goes up. That’s why people tend to flock to Apple stores whenever Steve Jobs announces a price reduction. We’re borrowing that notion and applying it to sex. The #1 reason people we surveyed said they weren’t having enough sex with their spouses is that they were too tired, followed closely by too busy. (Remember what I said about limited resources?) So if that’s the problem, one solution is making sex less exhausting, less daunting, less time consuming–in other words, more affordable. We talked to couples who set a goal of having sex a certain number of times a week, no excuses. They didn’t have fireworks sex, but they had sex–and some quick sex turned out to be better than no amazing sex. Go figure. Other ways to make sex more “affordable”: be transparent with each other (tell each other what you’re into and what you want), and send clear signals that you’re in the mood or not in the mood, to avoid any guesswork (also something that uses up precious resources).
wOw: In your book, you come out against splitting household chores 50/50. Why?
PS: Because first of all, it leads to score keeping, which is very resource-intensive. Second, it means we’re constantly measuring fairness, and whether we’re getting the shaft, and that’s also resource-intensive, not to mention a losing battle. Third, because there’s a better way. We recommend borrowing from the concept of comparative advantage, which says you should specialize in what you’re best at RELATIVE to other tasks. Meaning: If you’re better at dishes–faster, more thorough, more willing–than laundry, and he’s better at laundry than dishes, he should be in charge of laundry and you should handle dishes. And yes, that means you’re doing more than 50/50 when there are dirty dishes in the sink, but it evens out on laundry days. You should read the book to see how it works in detail, but the upshot is that this method saves you time–which is something that is always in short supply.
wOw: Did writing this book change your marriage — and if so, how?
I’m not sure it totally changed my marriage. But it taught me a lot of cool tricks for handling situations that we weren’t so great at handling before. I’m definitely much more aware of my loss aversion and much better at calling a time out when an argument has become more about winning than about resolving. And my husband and I rarely if ever argue about our division of labor anymore since we each have the tasks we specialize and trust that we’ll both get our jobs done. We also learned that we can survive a very tough couple of years.
Editor’s Note: Paula Szuchman, with New York Times reporter Jenny Anderson, is the author of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and the Dirty Dishes. A page-one editor at The Wall Street Journal, where she was previously a reporter covering the travel industry and lifestyle trends, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. Visit her at spousonomics.com