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JewishJournal.com

May 20, 2011

Marital Seesaw

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/marital_seesaw_20110520

The following book titles are among the many that crowd my “divorce” bookshelf: “The Case for Marriage,” “Joint Custody With a Jerk,” “The 5 Love Languages” and “My Husband Is Gay.” Since my husband is not gay, and I’m not planning a divorce, I should probably explain why my home library is packed with self-help books related to marriage and divorce. These books served as background research for a book I wrote a while back called “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married.”

As a result of my numerous divorce-centric book purchases, the Big Brother software at Amazon.com jumped to the conclusion that my marriage — to a gay man — is disintegrating and is now “helping” me by recommending titles such as “The Complete Gay Divorce” and “He’s History, You’re Not: Surviving Divorce After 40.” Typically, I ignore most of Amazon’s “so if you liked blank, then you will like blank” suggestions, but recently, the book retailer sent me a message that piqued my interest.

Amazon suggested I purchase “Spousonomics,” a new book written by Paula Szuchman, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, and Jenny Anderson, an award-winning New York Times reporter whose beat included Wall Street. So I did.

After the book arrived, I scanned the description on the jacket ­— “Making it work till death do you part — or just till the end of the week — isn’t always easy.” Not exactly a news flash, right? But the authors’ solution to marital woes was a unique one: “Start thinking like an economist.” For example, a failing sex life should be jump-started by applying accepted economic theories concerning supply and demand; disagreements over dividing chores would disappear if the couple would institute proven division-of-labor principles; and nagging should be avoided because it lacks a sound “incentive structure.”

The book features several interesting case studies of couples teetering on the brink of marital Armageddon who make substantive changes consistent with sound economic principles that — surprise! — save the marriage.  I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all of the marriages examined by the authors seemed to be suffering from different variations of the same problem: resentment caused when one spouse feels like the other spouse isn’t contributing equally to the relationship.

In “Case Study No. 1,” Amy is angry at Jose because after a hard day at work, Jose zones out in front of the TV, leaving Amy (who also had a hard day at work) to handle dinner and get the kids ready for bed. Ditto for formerly carefree Beatrice and Deadhead-chasing Troy. Apparently, Troy’s once-charming “Hey, let’s sleep in the van and see where the wind takes us” ways got old fast once a child and bills were added to the mix. And the disgruntled husbands in the book were mostly unhappy that their wives weren’t “contributing” to their sex life.

The issues raised in the book didn’t sound much different from the resentment I frequently hear expressed by women who do a disproportionate share of domestic chores and from men who resent that their spouse’s interest in sex has decreased substantially since their Mai Tai-drinking, child-free honeymoon.

As Szuchman and Anderson point out, the tit-for-tat way of thinking is an intrinsic part of marriage. “The whole setup of marriage, from the moment you say ‘I do,’ is a lifelong exercise in tit-for-tat. No matter how much you love the guy, let’s be honest: You’re not going to agree to the whole monogamous, sickness-and-health stuff unless he does, too. And while in your best moments you’re happy to give unconditionally, you’re also human — you expect that when you give your partner a foot rub, you’ll eventually get something foot-rub-like in return. Why should you give her a great birthday present this year when last year she gave you socks? You made the bed yesterday — you’d think he could do it today. There’s no incentive to give if all the other person does is take.”

When it comes down to it, married adults are not a whole lot different in the quid pro quo department than two kids playing together. Consider a seesaw in the park. The ride is useless unless both kids work at it equally. The minute either of them stops pushing off, the fun ends for both parties.

In marriage, the seesaw computations are a lot more challenging. Whereas it is easy for a kid to figure out that one push on the seesaw requires one push back, the multiple efforts required to keep the marital seesaw in motion are a lot tougher to calculate. Are four diaper changes equal to a single lightbulb change? Does staying up with the teenager until midnight to prepare for a history test equate to washing the dinner dishes? The equations are further complicated by other factors: whether the lightbulb change also required a trip to Home Depot, the diaper change was standard or diarrhea, the dishes were used for sandwiches or macaroni and cheese; and whether the history exam was on George Washington or every king named George. But because it is human nature to ascribe a greater value to our own efforts than to the efforts of others, the marital seesaw invariably feels off balance.

Is there a solution to the tit-for-tat downward marriage spiral? An example from the world of economics, as quoted in “Spousonomics,” suggests there is. The recent stock market fiasco was caused by what economists call a feedback loop, a chain reaction that doubles back on itself. “Stock market falls, so you sell off stocks, which makes the stock market fall further,” Szuchman and Anderson explain.

In other words, once we collectively realized that others weren’t investing, we concluded that it was foolish for us to invest — just like when our spouses stop investing in our marriages, we stop, too.  Yet, the stock market largely recovered. Why? Because at some point, we sensed that others were investing again, so it felt safe for us to invest. The feedback loop works both ways. And when it comes to marriage, it works both ways, too. Start investing again, and your spouse will invest, too.

It’s basic economics.

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