Its not often that I get really, really excited by anything, let alone economic theory, but Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson’s book Spousonomics and their truly original blog are absolutely my most favorite things in the whole world right now.
Paula (pictured right) and Jenny (pictured left) are both married with kids and they work as journo’s at The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times respectively. They write in an easy but intelligent way about issues that perplex the hell out of most of us, and their work has real charm. I love it.
Like all good ideas, the concept behind Spousonomics is both smart and simple; marriage is its own economy, a business of two, with a finite number of resources that need to be allocated correctly. By applying bedrock economic principles to some of the most common conflicts in domestic life Paula and Jenny have come up with a set of viable and realistic solutions for couples who want to improve the quality of their lives and their relationships.
Last night, at very short notice, Paula and Jenny were kind enough to answer a few questions for More Sex Daily.
Q. Can you define how to employ tactics like cost benefit analysis, or supply and demand to the relationship in the bedroom?
A. In economics, the negative sloping demand curve says that when the cost of something gets too high, we want less of it. When the price of milk shoots up, we’ll drink our coffee black. When a pack of cigarettes costs $8, chewing gum starts to look more appealing. And when the cost of sex becomes too high, we’ll opt instead for a cheap night of TV and doughnuts.
By the “cost” of sex, we don’t mean the literal cost of paying for sex. We mean what it costs you, as in what you have to give up to get it—sleep, Internet surfing, shopping, whatever. And for some reason, once people get married, those costs start to feel pretty weighty. There always seems to be a million and one reasons NOT to have sex.
Our approach is to tackle this in the most practical, goal-oriented way, and that’s what economics offers. So going back to that demand curve, we say lower your sex costs, and you’ll see demand rise almost instantly. How do you lower those costs? One way is by being more transparent. Don’t make your partner guess whether you’re in the mood, or figure out which position you like best. Tell him or her straight out. It’s amazing how even couples who have been married for a decade still tip around the issue of desire. They’re shy or they expect the other person to just know that they’re in the mood to do it — and to do it in xx or yy position. Well no one’s a mind reader, and just like transparency is crucial to the functioning of the economy, it’s an integral part of a healthy sex life.
Also, get into the habit of having sex. There’s a theory in economics called “rational addiction,” which basically says that the more you have of something (say, heroin, or croissants), the more you want to it. We spoke to couples who said just by getting in the habit of having sex 3 times a week — no excuses, no postponements — they found themselves actually wanting to do it. Maybe a neuroscientist would say they’re releasing seratonin every time they do it and that’s fueling a virtuous cycle, but we’re not neuroscientists so don’t quote us.
And while you’re getting into good habits, be realistic. You know you’re always too full and tired to have sex after a big dinner– so do it after you put the casserole in the oven and before you actually eat it. Don’t insist on hours of foreplay if it’s a school night. Just make it happen. Quick sex is better than no sex. And in economic terms, it’s a low-cost endeavor.
Q. I’m looking at sexual frequency in my survey and according to my (very early) results, the majority of couples are only having sex once a month on a Saturday night. There is, however, a discrepancy and one partner would often like it more. How would you suggest using incentives to increase frequency?
A. Yes, we found that, too. In so many relationships, there’s bound to be one person who wants it more than the other. And it’s not always the man, which is the stereotype. In our research, we met an astounding number of women who said they wish their husbands would have sex with them more often. I really thing a good solution is what I mentioned above: transparency. If you’re the one who’s less likely to be in the mood, then you should at least signal clearly to your partner when you ARE in the mood and would be open to advances. That’s one thing. The other is, like I said, habits, repetition, rational addiction. In Spousonomics, we’re big proponents of actually conducting business meetings with your spouse where you come up with regulatory frameworks and agreements. By all means, agree to a frequency you can both live with. It might be less than one person wants and more than the other, but if you can agree on it, then you can at least eliminate the pain and awkwardness of does-he-want-it/i-hate-having-to-say-no-but-i-just-don’t-want-to.
Q. How do you resolve the fact that there is so little room for the variables of emotion in economic theory?
A. I’m not sure I’d agree with that. There’s a whole, relatively new, branch of economics called behavioral economics. It borrows from psychology, and it basically seeks to look at the way we human beings behave in a more realistic way, accounting for our biases, our weaknesses and our seemingly irrational decisions. So traditional economics might say that we are always going to act according to our own self-interest: we’ll buy the house that’s within our means, save money for retirement, and treat our spouses like we love them. But behavioral economists will work emotions and irrationality into their formulas, unmasking that we don’t always act in our self-interest: we’ll buy houses that we can’t afford because we want to keep up with our neighbors, we’ll splurge on new cars and clothes instead of saving for retirement, and yeah, we won’t always be loving to the people we love.
In Spousonomics, we draw from both approaches. We suggest using a cold, clear-headed cost-benefit analysis to decide whether it’s worth having sex with your spouse even if you’re bone tired. But we also suggest things like taking a time out from a heated argument so that you don’t keep arguing just for the sake of winning (that’s called loss aversion, and it’s a term from behavioral economics).
SPOUSONOMICS: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by Paula Szuchman & Jenny Anderson will be published by Random House on February 8, 2011