I Don’t

Marriage and the Art of Game Theory

In her book, It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes, Daily Beast editor Paula Szuchman argues that economics can save your marriage. Below she describes beating your spouse at the game of chicken.

Abel Mitja Varela / Getty Images

In this, the season of weddings, it’s good to remember that it’s all downhill from here. After the toasts and conga lines, the All-Clad omelet pans and honeymoon sex begins the real work of living together until you die.

This is doable but challenging. You will hear a lot of advice about compromising and using “I” sentences instead of “you” (as in, “I feel sad when I see that we have no money,” vs. “You are terrible with money and are going to ruin us”). All good advice. But there’s another way to approach spousal negotiations and it’s called game theory.

Game theory is the study of how we make decisions in strategic situations. Classic examples: the Cuban missile crisis (PDF), soccer penalty kicks, and the first scene of The Dark Knight. When you find yourself debating whether to wait for the bus another minute or give up and walk, you’re facing a game-theory dilemma. Same when you’re browsing the profiles on a dating site.

At this very moment, Iran, Israel and the U.S. are playing a three-way game of chicken involving cyber warfare and potential nuclear annihilation.

To see how this relates to an average marriage, replace, for a moment, Ahmadinejad and Obama with Joel and Lisa. And replace Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with Joel and Lisa’s refrigerator, which has been empty for three days. Husband and wife are in a standoff, neither one backing down. They’ve been ordering in from Gino’s Pizza every night this week, and they’ve never had such indigestion in their lives. But God help Joel if he’s going to go to the supermarket; he’s gone food shopping the last five Saturdays while Lisa played tennis. Lisa’s not going, either—she does everything around the house, including folding Joel’s underwear and paying the bills, which means unless Joel wants to memorize their online banking password and dig his dirty clothes out from under the bed, he’s going to be the one hauling his sorry self to the ShopRite. Lisa can wait. She’s waited this long.

Perhaps you’re thinking you guys are more mature than Joel and Lisa, right? You never stand firm, waiting for the other to back down. You don’t guilt each other into calling your parents, or pretend you don’t notice the stack of dishes growing moldy in the sink. You would never, in a million years, treat your spouse like an opponent in an elaborate game of chess in which the winner gets to lie on the couch and watch Mad Men while the loser puts the kids to bed.

Forgive me if I don’t believe you. What I suspect is more likely is that you and he/she have a little Joel and Lisa in you, and that you’re not above engaging in brinksmanship, or scheming to finally triumph in an ongoing argument, or strategizing to get what you want. I’ll bet you play these games more than you admit, and sometimes, without even realizing you’re doing it.

So why not learn to play the game like a pro? Here are a few things game theory and marriage have in common:

–They both require more than one person.–They both involve people who are trying to further their own gains but are limited by the presence of another person.–They both offer the possibility of a “cooperative strategy,” in which two parties work together to come up with a reasonable solution, and a “noncooperative strategy,” where it’s every man for himself.–In both, the noncooperative option is often the most tempting, but could result in death, whereas the cooperative option is annoying, but rarely fatal.

To cooperate or not to cooperate? To budge or stand your ground? To say “OK, fine” or “not a chance”? These are questions married people find themselves asking with surprising frequency. Ideally, the answer is always cooperate, budge, and say OK. But in practice, when there’s baggage involved and a history together and scars from past relationships, getting to that point takes effort.

In a survey of married people my co-author and I conducted for our book, It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes, we posed the open-ended question, “What’s the hardest part about being married?” Sure enough, most of the answers related to cooperating, or, more specifically, to not wanting to cooperate:

“Learning to live with another person in the house.”“Having to compromise.”“Different points of view.”“Making myself less of a priority.”“Not always getting my way.”“Agreeing to disagree.”“Seeing eye to eye in raising children.”“Negotiating different goals.”“I can’t do everything I want when I want to.”“Toilet seat.”

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The great thing about game theory is that it tackles situations in which you can’t have it all, but you’d like to at least achieve the best results possible. Note those three magic words: best results possible. That’s not the same as “getting what I want” or being “right,” two scenarios most of us would admittedly prefer. But if game theory teaches us anything, it’s that relationships aren’t about having it all, they’re about having all you can under the circumstances. In your marriage, those circumstances include the obvious, though often overlooked, fact that there’s another person involved: your spouse—a spouse who also happens to be after his or her own best results.

As the economist Thomas Schelling says of game theory (and which, I think, is a great definition of marriage): “Two or more individuals have choices to make, preferences regarding the outcomes, and some knowledge of the choices available to each other and of each other’s preferences. The outcome depends on the choices that both of them make ... There is no independently ‘best’ choice that one can make; it depends on what the others do.”

With that in mind, here are three strategies game theory offers for improving the outcomes of potential conflicts with your spouse:

1. Think ahead. How will he react to what I’m about to do or say? And how should that reaction influence my behavior right now?2. Learn from the past. How did she react the last time I did this? How can I do things differently now to avoid the same outcome?3. Put yourself in his shoes. This doesn’t mean considering what you would do if you were him, but what he would do if he were him, which he is.

This sounds like such reasonable advice, yet in the heat of the moment, so many of us routinely do the opposite. Getting back to Joel and Lisa and their refrigerator standoff: they’re not even trying to put themselves in each other’s shoes, and they’re forgetting that they’re both super-stubborn. Instead, they’re playing a game of chicken, also known as brinksmanship, with the refrigerator, where the potential outcome is never again eating a home-cooked meal (never mind, hating each other). A noncooperative strategy would ensure that very result. But a cooperative strategy would lead to meatloaf, roast chicken, quinoa salad, romantic dinners, and all sorts of other great stuff that married people can enjoy if they put their minds to it.

That strategy involves changing the rules of the game by devising incentives so both Joel and Lisa are more motivated to cooperate than to have the last word. Let’s say they assign each other specific shopping weeks and put it in their Google calendars. The penalty for defecting—or not shopping when it’s your turn—is controlling the TV all week (this example happens to be fresh in my mind since my husband and I recently spent a good while debating whether to watch Albert Nobbs—my choice—or the NBA playoffs—his).

Whatever penalty they choose, it simply has to be more unpleasant than food shopping. Mowing the lawn, changing diapers, Skyping with the Australian relatives, booking plane tickets, making school lunches, programming the coffee maker, cleaning the toilets, weeding, picking up the dry cleaning, sharpening the knives, going to IKEA, changing light bulbs, doing the taxes, saying hi to the neighbor, attending a PTA meeting—these are just a few a things that come to mind. And that’s the beauty of marriage: now there’s someone else to do the chores for you. Mazel tov!