De-clutter Your Life So The Right Person Can Step In

Jim is a successful, financially independent guy with manly charisma. He is good at unwinding after busy work-days or –weeks, and fills his leisure with a host of interesting activities; he volunteers in the leadership of several NGOs, spends time with his nieces and nephews and aging parents, and likes to hike and travel the world. No surprise, he has had the girls line up for him. – But somehow things never quite fell into place. He didn’t manage to warm up to any lady in the line. The few times he did decide to date someone things didn’t last long. Always something missing. And those he really loved didn’t love him back.

A puzzle. Until one sees him interact with his family. One brother is a bit of a problem-case; and Jim is left to take care of him. A cousin criticizes him constantly and gives him catch-22 orders (=contradictory in themselves). The rest of the family are sweet and good-natured but don’t stand up for themselves. Jim does all the running. Always. It has been like this forever.

What Jim doesn’t realize is that every relationship is a trade. It is a giving and taking. Ideally, between fairly equal people. Also ideally, of people who care about each other as they care about themselves. But in any case, it is a mutual thing, an exchange of goods. And the exchange is worthwhile because it makes both parties better off. It cannot be taking only (what he experiences by his family) or giving only (what he is doing). If it’s not an exchange, there is no relationship.

Jim needs to do less and get more. He needs to let go a little in the dating world. And in order to be able to do that, he needs to let go a little at home. Let his critical cousin sort out the problem-brother. They might both benefit. He can also leave the good-natured ones to their devices.

He also needs to let go of perfectionism. People like the critical cousin seem to teach us that things should always be better, that everything is improvable. While this may be true, the other side of the coin is that nothing is perfect. Ever.

Once Jim has de-cluttered his life of unhealthy obligations, bonds, criticism and perfectionism there is space for the right woman to step in. And stay.

Time and Babies

Dear Economist,

my husband and I are planning to have a baby. Of course we already hear more advice than we want to. But what do you think: will a baby change our relationship? How? Will it make us happier?

Thank you, Veronica

Dear Veronica,

Let’s compare the pre-baby and post-baby worlds from an economist’s perspective. One basic economic choice to make is how much to work vs how much leisure to enjoy. More work means more money and more things you can consume; and it also means less leisure. In the pre-baby world, you and hubby have already made this choice. You chose a job, and with it a certain salary and a certain amount of work hours. If you and hubby care a lot about each other and about the same things, you likely arranged your work in a way that allows you to enjoy leisure together. This usually entails some sharing of chores, for example. (Compare this Daily Comment.)

As you already made this choice when entering post-baby world, your leisure hours are pretty fixed. Now, with a baby, a large chunk of one person’s leisure hours will be committed to baby care. There are different ways you can go about this, and some will likely make you happier than others. If you are not very interested in baby care, and assume the load alone, it will feel like a proportional reduction in your leisure time. Leisure gone and nothing in return – and you will likely be less happy than before. If you like baby care (as I assume you do, because you want a baby), then you will enjoy the hours of baby care, like nothing you ever experienced before. If your husband is of the same view, joint caring will be like leisure spent jointly and much fun. And it will strengthen your relationship.

One caveat, even for the sunny scenario. Baby care, like any fun activity, has diminishing returns. A further hour spent on it is less fun than the first hour. What is more, in this particular case, the returns are very non-linear. I.e. after pretty much a plateau of reasonably high returns, they diminish markedly and care can become very tiring. It is a good idea to find out (and be honest about) this inflection point for yourself and husband. Make sure to involve help for the hours beyond this point, from a baby sitter, grandparents or others. You, hubby and also your kids will be the happier for it..

Your Economist

 

Who tells the truth, husbands or wives?

Scientists who collect survey data talk to a lot of people and ask them a lot of questions. That includes a lot of husbands and wives. Sometimes they ask the same question to both, but in separate meetings. For example about what the couple own, how they spend their time, how many kids they have and how many more they want.

What is reassuring is that husbands and wives give mostly the same answers. For nearly any question, 100% of husbands and wives agree on what is going on (says some recent research on this).

On some questions however, husbands and wives disagree more. Some of these are on opinions, like ‘how big do you want your family to be?’ It’s quite possible that couples do not agree. Or maybe they don’t talk much about it. But others are about clear facts, as in: do you use contraception? In the cited research, men tended to paint a more socially popular picture than their wives, on questions related to family planning and sexual health.

Hm. Maybe due to context. Or maybe not.

What can be done? Well, the effect was actually more marked in areas where women had lower status relative to men. Areas with more equity between men and women showed more consistency.

Support in marriage = success in business

Haven’t we guessed it. A woman’s courage and success in business likely depend on the supportiveness of her husband. A husband that respects a woman’s personal ownership of things, and income, and decisions…. and that cooperatively supports her efforts, likely has a wife that invests (herself) more, takes more risks and is ultimately more successful.

In the same context, and provided with the same opportunities, women with and without supportive husbands can perform strikingly differently. This smart paper shows some preliminary evidence in that direction.

Inspired by these findings, dear lady daters, add to your list of criteria: he has to respect your decisions (and time, and property..), bargain fairly and help with your career goals.

Can you have a career and a happy family?

Today, dear readers, you get a reflective one. Not much evidence except anecdotal, but lots of reflection to make up for it.

Honest, do you know a hugely successful person that also has a home life you would want to emulate?

I used to have such role models in the past (e.g. an MD with four kids), but as I move up the ranks myself, MDs become less of a role model, and CEOs more so. Also, upon closer inspection, those four kids were not all as well adjusted as their mum. And as far as managers go…I seem to be seeing more childless, single and divorced people than at other hierarchy levels. Or people with a lifelong distance relationship; one CEO sees her partner once a month and considers that a relationship. Another variant is living together ‘for the kids’ but dropping the wedding band and normal marital interactions between the spouses; until the kids are grown and a divorce is less painful.

What is this? Does a parents’ high powered career zap the life out of couple communication? Does a job encroach so much upon spare time that people end up married to their job? Or is my perception not representative?

And what about the children’s growth path? Again, if you look at the anecdotes, successful parents often raise less successful kids. Warren Buffett’s daughter runs a (daddy-financed?) philanthropy, and his son is a farmer. Not that there’s anything wrong with farming. And Paris Hilton…well. The Clintons and maybe Mitt Romney seem to be an exception. Bill Gates’ kids are too young to tell.

Readers, this is one for you. Please share your observations via the comment function.

A Marriage Premium for Men

When economists talk about returns to marriage, they usually refer to women. There is good evidence that women, on average, ‘earn’ from marrying, through the husband’s higher wage. There is even a return to education that women can reap through marriage: highly educated women meet highly educated men (at university for example) i.e. the men who earn more than the less educated. (In some parts of the world, this will be the only return to education women will ever reap; nada with working outside the home.)

The news is that men, too, earn a marriage premium. But they earn it themselves. Here is how the story goes. Men who wish to marry make an effort in their job and by the time they marry, they actually have managed to improve their earnings. Marriage is enticing, and working towards it improves men’s professional and economic status. “If there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs” writes Eric Gould who studied the subject.

There is of course the risk that you pick up the fact that more prosperous men marry more easily anyway (and got prosperous by other motivations). But Eric Gould controlled for this issue and managed to strip out the domino chain that links the prospect of marriage to effort rather than the other way round. Only pitfall: the effect only works for average and lower earning men; highly earning men do not improve themselves by dreaming about marriage, they are already motivated.

Marriage stability & the In-laws

Here’s the weirdest divorce statistic I have come across in a while: when husbands have a good relationship with their in-laws, divorce probability sinks by 20percent. When, instead, the wife has a good relationship with her in-laws, the divorce probability rises by 20percent. – What the heck?

Contrary to the researchers I don’t believe that reporting of ‘a good In-law relationship’ by the wife also means she suffers from meddling In-laws. I doubt she would have called the relationship good then.

I rather fear that darker forces of nature are at work here. A woman can only have so many kids in a life. I have heard of cases of 14, but say 8 is more like the natural upper boundary. A man, however, can have nearly unlimited amounts of kids – as long as he involves more than one woman. So, the parents of the wife have an evolutionary interest embedded in their genes that prompts them to foster the stability and wellbeing of their daughter’s marriage. Because the kids she will have in this marriage are likely all the kids she’ll ever have; she can certainly not increase the number of kids infinitely by divorcing and re-marrying younger men. It’s the opposite for a man: in theory, he can increase his prospect of children by divorcing and re-marrying a younger woman. Somewhere his parents must also ‘know’ this in their genes and have an evolutionary urge, however little, to nudge their son along…

So, when in doubt, celebrate the next holiday at her parents’ rather than his.. 

Do looks matter?

Dear Economist,

Do looks really matter in the dating market? I mean, conventional wisdom holds that they do. But I seem to observe that many plain girls have found their soul mate, while several beautiful ones haven’t. Before I invest time, energy and money into bettering my exterior, could you confirm that it would be wise to do so?

Sincerely, Layla

Dear Layla,

That is a very good question. While your observations are probably right, your conclusion is wrong. Daniel Hamermesh at the University of Texas has researched the topic of ‘looks’ since the early nineties and gives us four important lessons:

1) Finding a spouse does not depend on looking good.

Holding age and education constant, a woman’s looks are completely unrelated to her chances of being married.

However, your observation is true in the short run: the average looking girls will find a match more quickly, because they are approachable by many men. On the other hand, the rarer you are, including in (good) looks, the longer you will have to search to find comparable material.

2) However, the better you look, the more educated (and therefore better earning) your husband will be.

Hamermesh’s key paper finds that looking average or above gets you a husband with one more year of education compared to the below average lookers (other things held equal).

3) It’s worth checking the looks of your beau: in the workplace, looks are more important for men than for women.

Unattractive women make 12% less than attractive women, but unattractive men make 17% less than the attractive ones.

4) Plastic surgery does not pay.

Even with the results above, don’t go overboard. For each dollar spent on the surgery, you get less than a dollar increased in earnings.

Happiness: invest in your relationships, not your career

We kind of suspected it: relationships are worth so much more than many things we usually strive after (career, money, property…). When you want true happiness, claims David Brooks in ‘Social Animal’, your best investments are many, trusting and deep relationships. A good marriage is apparently worth $120,000 a year just by itself. (Dr de Bergerac thinks this is an understatement.) Every friendship, multiplied by its depth, adds to the happiness income.

So there we go. Starting next week, make sure to leave your desk at 5pm sharp and call up your buddy instead of reviewing the accounts once more.