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01.31.11

Spousonomics: How Economics Can Help Figure Out Your Marriage

The more it costs to have sex, the less sex you have, say Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Three lessons in how to make every year the Year of the Rabbit.

The more it costs to have sex, the less sex you have, say Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. From their new book, Spousonomics, three lessons in how to make every year the Year of the Rabbit.

Here’s some standard advice about improving your sex life:

• Have more foreplay.
• Talk about it.
• Keep a journal of your feelings re: sex.
• Introduce role play/massage/scented candles.
• Go on a romantic vacation.
• Rekindle the mystery.

Here’s our advice:

• Make it affordable.

Wha?

Let's explain. All that stuff about foreplay and romance? That stuff takes time and energy. And if it’s one thing today’s couples don’t have in excess it’s time and energy. We just wrote a book about this very topic. It’s called Spousonomics, and it looks at ways economics can help people improve their relationships. Economics is all about the allocation of scarce resources, and the key to a happy marriage is, in many ways, finding smart ways to allocate your own scarce resources—the hours in your day, money in your bank, your sex drive, your patience, or the sheer willpower it takes for you to stay awake a minute past 10 p.m. No surprise that the No.1 reason married couples say they don’t have sex, according to our research: They’re too tired.

So we ask you: How is ADDING foreplay to the situation going to incentivize already-exhausted couples to get busy? Just imagine the inner monologue: “Drink another glass of wine, watch the end of CSI, and curl up in bed…or down a Red Bull, light 18 orange-blossom candles, and break out the head tickler?” Not really a tough decision.

This is where affordability comes into play. As any economist will tell you, demand tends to go up when costs go down—not up. That’s why stores put things on sale, gyms offer a free month at sign-up, and Ford pushes zero-interest car loans.

So that’s it—the secret to good sex after marriage: low costs, high transparency. Who said economics was dismal?

Take a look at this:

szuchman-sexonomiembed

This is a negative sloping demand curve. It shows that when the cost of something rises, we want less of it. When sex becomes exorbitantly expensive, we’re practically celibate. That’s the unfortunate situation Couple X finds themselves in. They’re the kind of people who keep feelings journals and think sex needs to be as hot as it was when they first met and involve at least one foot massage. And because of this, they can’t ever seem to find the time to do it.

But when sex is dirt cheap, we’re much more likely to go at it like rabbits. Couple O has been together for 15 years and has a great sex life. They keep it affordable. If they’re tired, they make it quick. Maybe they don’t even bother to take their shirts off. When one of them is in the mood, they say so.

Which brings us to a second principle of economics that applies to the bedroom: transparency. Transparency is what keeps the wheels of the free market—and, coincidentally, your sex life—greased. Couple O doesn’t make each other guess, because guessing takes time, and is often stressful (“Should I or shouldn’t I? If she’s not up for it, I’m going to be bummed and wonder if it’s because she’s not attracted to me. What if she’s not attracted to me? Oh Jesus. Forget it”). Bottom line: Guessing is costly.

book---spousonomics
Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes By Paul Szuchman and Jenny Anderson 352 pages. Random House. $26. ()

We interviewed hundreds of couples in our research and surveyed more than a thousand. By and large, those who said they had a great sex life had a few common traits: 1. They were attracted to each other, 2. They were flexible, and 3. They kept their costs down.

When we asked these people how they communicated when they were in the mood, they said things like:

• “I usually put a condom on. That seems to give her the idea I want a little more than good conversation.”
• “One of us says, ‘Let’s take a nap!’”
• “He’ll say, ‘Is it Special Time?’”
• “‘Wanna do it?’ usually gets the message across.”
• “I don’t say anything, I just come back to bed.”
• “It’s Saturday. How about some Shabbos sex?”

Rabbits, every single one of them. Transparent rabbits.

Now for your third and final economics lesson: the theory of rational addiction.

The gist of rational addiction is that we get addicted to things—alcohol, gambling, porn, crystal meth, cigarettes, loser boyfriends—by doing them over and over again, and we stay addicted to them because we feel the benefits outweigh the costs. So a heroin addict knows heroin is habit-forming and deadly, but has decided he’d still rather be high and addicted than not high and not addicted. For him, being an addict is a “rational” decision in the sense that he has considered the long- and short-term costs and benefits. According to the theory, the same applies to what might be considered “good” addictions, like working hard, or listening to music, or eating healthy food, or loving one person every day, for the rest of your life.

Or having sex. We're not talking the 12-step kind of sex addiction. But the rational addiction that comes with repeated use. Become a rabbit (by first lowering your costs) and you’re upping the odds that you’ll stay a rabbit (by getting into the habit).

That’s essentially how it worked for a couple we’ll call Heidi and Jack.

After a few years of marriage, their sex life had become mediocre. Not even mediocre. It was actually very lame. But neither of them seemed inclined to fix it. Apathy was easier. Until one night when they had friends over for dinner and the conversation turned to sex.

One of the women said she’d read somewhere that the national average for married couples was twice a week. Suddenly, everyone was comparing notes. For some it really was twice a week, for others, once.

Jack couldn’t remember the last time he and Heidi had had sex. They looked at each other and shared a very uncomfortable moment. It took some therapy for them to finally admit the problem: They never told each other what they were into.

Let's repeat that: They never told each other what they were into.

That may sound surprising for two people who are married, share a bathroom, a bank account, and a baby, but it’s a fact (and actually, not an uncommon scenario). At any rate, this state of affairs made sex not very exciting. Which wasn’t an incentive to do it very often. When Heidi and Jack finally started being transparent—for example, she liked porn, he liked lingerie, two reasonable affinities neither of them had ever bothered to share—things started heating up.

So that’s it—the secret to good sex after marriage: low costs, high transparency. Who said economics was dismal?

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Paula Szuchman is a business-news journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Wallpaper, and others. Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes is her first book.

Jenny Anderson is a reporter at The New York Times where she currently covers education. Prior to that she covered business and finance at the Times and various other publications, including Institutional Investor magazine and the New York Post. Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes is her first book.