Is there a currency in your partnership?


I am in a wedding state of mind. Excited with a nephew getting married this weekend (Yes , I am that old), hosting a bridal shower last week, and the hopeful onset of spring, love is definitely in the air. And I am not the only one.  Over the past few weeks several columnists have also written about marriage, only not the blissful and romantic part, but the cold hard economics of marriage.  Who does what, how often, how well, and at what cost or currency to the "Partnership"?

Katherine Rosman writes in the Wall Street Journal that the currency of her marriage is “time” and that over time a “marital ledger” is usually formed.  This ledger keeps track of what each person gives and takes from the marriage.  One person takes a vacation with friends, the other gives a weekend of solo parenting, one takes on the dinner dishes while the other gives their effort to finishing a work assignment.  This is all kept track of in the marital ledger. She feels  “It's about whose agenda gets top billing. It's about the divvying up of responsibility. It's about an intricate system of checks and balances.” Thanks goodness she does recognize at the end of the article that there are some things you do just because, not necessarily to balance the books.

Stephen Dunbar of Freakonomics and The New York Times, interviewedPaula SzuchmanandJenny Anderson, co-authors of the new book Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes.  These two women attempt to bring basic economic theory to everyday marriage.  Economics is the study of resource allocation so they ask. How do we—as partners in a society, a business, or a marriage—spend our limited time, money, and energy? And how do we allocate these resources most efficiently? Is this possible?  The book is written in a humorous manner and makes light of everyday squabbles and challenges and is praised by many.

Is this what happens in your house? So you see value in tallying domestic responsibilities on a regular basis, be it daily, monthly, or quarterly?

This idea of the economics of marriage is interesting and has certainly has merit but also raises some tricky questions for me personally.

Is it really that simple? I was an economics major so I get the theory and see the value in recognizing trends and intersecting variables like cost and return.  However, to me valuing marriage has many more than two or three simple variables, and many of them can’t be measured mathematically, plotted along nicely along an X and Y-axis. It is much more three-dimensional.  Probably why I changed majors in business school.  My life is far from linear.

Where do variables like support, friendship, and understanding come into the marital equation?  How do you quantify effort and good intentions?  The partner who travels all week or works late hours but still finds the time to wake up early in the morning to help get the kids off to school. Isn’t that exerting a different kind of effort?, Shouldn’t that be recognized differently than as just one data point? 

Maybe because I am the “PARENTESS” in my household, as discussed last week, the parent with the primary household and childcare responsibilities, or grew up in a single parent household where a ledger to share responsibilities would have been a welcomed luxury! But I could not possibly keep such a ledger or use economic theory to measure the everyday trading value of my marriage, as defined by these articles. Yikes.  It would be downright horrifying at times, looking at the lack of balance in the ledger! It just would not accurately reflect the reality or quality of my marriage.  Nope, I would definitely need to use some high tech fancy animated software to show the twists, colors and depth of my marriage in all its glory. Does that even exist?

Me, I need to trade on the value that we know each other’s tipping points and when to step in and give the other a break, work hard on communicating needs and challenges, know that marriage is sometimes about taking turns and recognizing effort no matter how big or how small, and most importantly giving each other the elbow room to grow and to shine.  

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