I have for a while pondered adding an economist’s twopence to the wonderful “Dear Carolyn” column in the Washington Post and not yet gotten there. But recently, there has been a recurring theme, and it has made my hands tickle.
Story no. 1 is about a relationship that means different things to him and her; basically she is committed and sees them as girlfriend and boyfriend and he does not. Story no. 2 has more or less the same theme, with the added twist that she has successfully convinced herself that he, despite saying the contrary, actually feels for her as she does for him.
Wowowow. There are a couple of themes here which we need to disentangle one by one.
At first sight, the economist thinks, ‘a-ha, incomplete contracts’. But that is not true. Incomplete contract theory states that no contract, no matter how well thought out, can include a clause for any eventuality, because many eventualities are unknown and unforeseeable, including the possibility that both contracting parties actually want something else in future.
But we are not in incomplete-contract territory. We are in no-contract territory. There is no contract, not even an incomplete one. No agreement of terms, only expectation of terms, and the side with the higher standards loses out.
Ladies, can I be your big sister for a second. You.have.to.negotiate. You.need.to.make.your.terms.clear. From an economist’s perspective, you.need.a.contract. It does not need to be a written one, but you have to talk. Early. Verbally. Before the non-verbal negotiation takes over. The second date is a good occasion to do this, assuming that the first date is just to check if you ever want to meet again, and the third date sometimes carries expectations. Yes, there is a chance that he turns your terms down. But I believe in 9 of 10 cases, he won’t. Here is why.
2. The demand for Female vs Male sex.
Ok, we need to take a cold blooded quant look at the reality of markets now. Are you ready? Female hetero sexuality is an asset. It is worth loads, concretely and figuratively. There is a gigantic, mega, market for female hetero sex, in all its forms, for just looking at things, for reading about it, for the visual and conversational presence of a woman, and I am not just talking about porn and prostitution and money. When economists say ‘market’, they mean an exchange of demand and supply more broadly. A picture of a smiling woman on a credit ad makes men willing to pay a 25% higher interest rate on that credit. There are papers that make a convincing case that marriage is in essence a contract about female hetero sex. Borrowing the words of Melissa Etheridge for a somewhat different context, many men would ‘beg, steal and lie, fight, kill and die’, to have a woman. And many have gone there.
There just is no equivalent market for male hetero sex. If you look at the actual monetary value of these markets, their size relation is more extreme than the sun vs the moon. The.sun.vs.the.moon. Let that sink in.
The relationships portrayed in stories 1 and 2 are basically sex-only relationships where male hetero sex is traded against female hetero sex. The guys are offering (less than) the moon for the sun. That is NO equivalent, from an economist’s viewpoint. Not by a large shot. In order to make this trade fair, the guys would need to put a lot more in.
That means, ladies, you get to set the terms. Make sure you do.
(In case you find my views too subtle, try Psychology Today.)
I wrote about that before here. Women have on average more of an oxytocin response than men. Important to keep in mind. You don’t want to be negotiating with too much oxytocin in your blood. You will trust where trust is not warranted.
That is why it’s important to have that conversation early. At the time of writing to Carolyn, it was arguably a little late. But even then a cool down period can help focus and re-center.
If things fall apart because of that, don’t worry and remember the supply-demand situation set out in point 2. There is plenty more fish in the sea, and it is swimming towards you.