Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…

Men care about (their) children

How many split families do you know where the father plays a role after divorce? How big is that role?  – If your perspective is anywhere near mine, the role probably differs for each case you know. Sometimes by choice, and sometimes, depending on where the couple resided, by law. Not all countries and federal states recognize joint custody.

Researchers recently found out that this custody law not only matters for divorce but also for marriage. Men adjust their behavior depending on the law: whether they marry at all, how many kids they have, if any, and how they behave in marriage. By all appearances, the evidence looks like men gain in bargaining power if they can have joint custody. At least the men that care about kids. On the plus side that means they are more eager to marry, have kids and have them in a marriage, and have less recourse to domestic violence. The catch is that they also divorce more easily once married and keep women at home rather than encouraging them to work.

On balance, not a bad deal for both sides.

Good Things Happen to People Who…Wait

Victoria is a beautiful and educated young woman from a well-to-do family.  She is also not too easy to please. She loves good manners and protocol and has a well-developed appreciation for gentlemanlikeness. Including for men to make the first move and to invite the ladies; not the other way round. She has had several admirers. And turned them down time and again. While she turned 20…25…30…she dismissed men she found not good enough. She plainly refused to think about any ticking clock, going against the current in her peer group. And then she met John. He passed the bar and she had in fact met her soulmate. But that is another story.

Victoria waited. She was happy to wait and happy in her wait. She met her girlfriends regularly, she had a bookclub and went to a sports club. She also loved organizing charity events and mingled in her university’s alumni club. Her time was well and happily filled and there was probably too much buzz to hear any clock ticking. She also switched careers and became a ‘mature student’ again at age 28, getting her MD at 32. (She married John one year later, by the way.)

When people wait comfortably for a partner, the match will be better and more sustainable. This common sense insight has some solid economic theory to back it up. Dale Mortensen in ‘Partner for Life’ reviews the labor market literature that is applicable not only to employer-employee but also husband-wife partnerships. And finds that people who find a way to sweeten the wait end up better matched. (And the unemployed who receive an unemployment benefit end up in a better matched job. But that is another story.)

 

 

Are you ‘well matched’ with your partner? 5 Shades of Love

What is a good match? Which couples are ‘meant for each other’? I would assume that most people agree that a good match is one where the partners love each other. Very much.

But how can we get at the ‘love’ concept? With economics, of all sciences?

Lo and behold, one extra daring economist has tried to capture ‘love’ in economic terms. Some of you may have guessed: Gary Becker. Inspired by his writings, here are 5 aspects of love that economists understand.

Love is…

  1. Caring about the partner. This is best measured as altruism, a concept that economists are, on average, fairly familiar with. In economic terms, it means, my happiness (“utility”) improves, if my partner’s happiness improves.
  2. Trust. If you two really care for each other, you don’t have to watch your back that much. Your partner already will.
  3. Sharing and generosity. If your partner is happy about you being happy, it doesn’t matter so much if he eats the last piece of cake or if you do. He’ll be (nearly) equally happy.
  4. Enjoying things more if consumed together. If you really care for each other, you enjoy a joint dinner more than if each person eats in her own time. Dinner has altogether a new quality; it becomes hard to accept a separate dinner as a valid meal. The same is true for other items, travel, parties, reading a book, even trying out new fashion.
  5. Enjoying the same things. Because of 4, it also makes sense if you like the same things. The same books, countries, dinners and dinner times, places…

If you can capture love in economic terms, it also means you can measure it.

If you want to know how well you are matched, here are questions you should ask: 1) Is your partner happy, if you are happy? 2) Can you trust him; does he look out for your advantage as much as his? 3) How does he share whatever is scarce – time, cake, money? 4) How much more do you enjoy dinner when you are together rather than dinner alone?

And, finally 5) How long does it take to agree on the theatre play you are going to watch, or the kind of picture you are going to hang?

The answer to these will be telling…

Why Women Should Propose

Laura and her boyfriend Ed had dated for 6 years and lived together for five. They led a joyful, loving and successful life together as entrepreneurs in a European metropole. Their personalities completed each other: he, an introvert, polite, soft-spoken, laid back and the modern version of the humble scientist; she, an extrovert, passionate planner and organizer, presenter and confessing to an exhibitionist touch both professionally and privately. They indulged in the different hobbies they both brought to the relationship (he: avant-garde art, she: wedding fairs and books). They had jointly travelled half the globe, had a network of hundreds of common friends and intended to keep leading this life forever. The only thing missing: Ed just.did.not.propose. When Laura’s mother-in-law asked her about wedding plans, she owned up about the missing proposal. Ed’s mum then encouraged her to propose herself, as she thought would be fitting for an emancipated young woman. Laura plotted and planned and delivered a very romantic proposal to Ed. She proposed in a hot air balloon in the French countryside. Ed said yes. And for the protocol, he counter proposed not much later, in a helicopter. They have been married for 9 years now.

This may be the most radical post to date. Why should it matter who proposes? Other than for tradition, say. Well, tradition goes further than what we usually assume; it’s where the power sits. And if it is about proposing in a relationship, the first mover wins. He or she sets the agenda more than the one who reacts.

As reviewed by Nobel Prize Winner Dale Mortensen in 1988, an algorithm devised by Gale and Shapley in 1962 can be used to match employers and employees or husbands and wives. A series of matching outcomes is stable if no paired person has the desire to rather be single. However, in a given matching outcome some people can be better of than others. E.g. a matched person would not prefer to be single but rather be paired with someone else. While several people are happy with whom they are paired with. And it can be shown that the outcome is actually most favorable for those individuals who proposed the match first. They have more options to choose from than the ones who react and only can choose between different proposals.

So ladies, if you want to take charge of your relationship happiness, make a move. First.

 

Work After Marriage

I know quite a few couples where the woman gave up her career after the first kids arrived. In most of these cases, the woman was better educated than her husband and had better grades and prospects of earnings. Still, the women gave up work and stayed home. A pity for the economy, I thought at the time. The families, as well as the country would have been richer, had these women worked. Some returned to work when the children entered school, but their career path was disrupted once and for all.

I always assumed their choice to stay home was voluntary. But recently another fact about them struck me: with the exception of one couple, they all live in the countryside.  And the one wife that lives in the city was actually the first to return to work.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn digged up more data on this and found that dual career couples tend to choose to live in cities. A metropolitan area holds the key for more job prospects for both partners.

The Feat of the Cheat

Sadly, cheating happens. Media earn very well from reports on celebrity cheating. Both men and women are guilty, if in different shares. Why people cheat is open to debate and we, frankly, don’t know. But economists can say something about what happens to cheats – the feat of the cheat.

A marriage is an investment. A huge investment, usually into monogamy among other things, consciously foregoing other opportunities. A cheater renounces that investment while the other party still pays dues. Problem is, the other party usually suspects.

Economists call what happens next the ‘hold-up’ problem. Suspicion, lack of trust in a joint undertaking leads to hold-up of own contributions. Like attention, time, chores, love, honesty, loyalty….or all of these. The more likely someone is to cheat, the more likely he will be missing any of the above.

What can be done? The best prevention of this is to make the marital commitment rock-solid from the start. Different cultures have experimented differently, but remedies include wedding witnesses (with whom reputation can be lost), joint property, the administrative costs of dissolving a civil marriage, prohibition of divorce of catholic marriages, up to more draconian punishments under sharia (which were probably never meant to be carried out in the first place, but to threaten people into compliance).

A commitment ‘written in stone’ has the opposite effect to a hold-up: opening up of the partners pays. Giving more attention, time, chores, love, you name it – cannot be lost. What happens in the marriage stays in the marriage – rather than in Vegas..

Epiphany Special: Top 5 Factors for a Happy Marriage with Kids

As a sequel to last year’s Christmas Special, we revisit the topic of children and marriage. What do kids do to a relationship?  Brad Wilcox and friends at U Virginia know more. Yes, it is still true, that, on average, parenthood decreases marital happiness. Not overall happiness, but marital happiness. Yet, a significant minority of 35% remain happy in their marriage, or even see their marital happiness increase after children arrive. In the last Special, we looked at marital factors that differ for these folks. Today we look at the top 5 social aspects:

1.      Education. Education. Education. College-educated parents have more stable and happier marriages than their peers with lower education. The researchers reckon that stronger social skills and better money may be the underlying reasons. I beg to differ; especially as the Money factor is measured separately. In my humble opinion, higher education confers a stronger sense of empowerment and confidence in one’s own skills to solve problems.

2.       Money. Income does not matter for marital happiness. But financial stress does. Spouses with high consumer debt are likely not very happy in their marriage.

3.       Sharing chores and childcare. Mothers and fathers that share the housework and the childcare equally report higher marital happiness.

4.       Women working as much as they want, but not more. Mothers who work more hours than they would like to report lower happiness in their marriage.

5.       A (safety) net of friends and family. Extended family, and close friends can act as ‘insurance’ and alleviate some acute issues, for example regarding finances or childcare. They can also be a source of knowledge or education and role modeling. But: the influence can also go the other way. Family or friends that foster a critical attitude between the spouses or are bad role models will endanger marital happiness.

 

Christmas Special: Kids and Relationships

What do kids do to a relationship? Will your marriage be better or worse for it?  – Recent research published by W. Bradford Wilcox and others at the University of Virginia digged out interesting findings. It turns out, that, on average, parenthood decreases marital happiness. Not overall happiness, but marital happiness. Yet, a significant minority of 35% (about the share of the winning parties in the recent elections in North Africa) remain happy in their marriage, or even see their marital happiness increase after children arrive.

What do these folks do differently? Here is a quick account of their top 6 relationship factors:

1.       A happy and active sex life. In terms impact, this is the strongest factor. “Sexually satisfied wives enjoy a 43-percentage-point premium in the odds of being very happy in their marriages, and sexually satisfied husbands enjoy a 46-percentage-point premium in marital happiness.”

2.       Thinking ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Married parents who score above average in terms of commitment are at least 45 percentage points more likely to report being “very happy” in their marriages, and 23 percentage points less likely to be prone to divorce.   ‘Commitment’ measures the extent to which spouses see their relationship in terms of “we” versus “me,” the importance they attach to their relationship, their conviction that a better relationship with someone else does not exist, and their desire to stay in the relationship “no matter what rough times we encounter.”

3.       Random acts of kindness. Married parents who are generous with each other —both in terms of giving and receiving in a spirit of generosity—are significantly more likely to report that they are ‘very happy’ in their marriage. Generosity is defined as the virtue of giving good things to [one’s spouse] freely and abundantly, and encompasses small acts of service (e.g., making coffee for one’s spouse in the morning), the expression of affection, displays of respect, and a willingness to “forgive him/her for mistakes and failings.”

4.       A family-centered value system. Independent of religion, couples who value family life, and having and rearing children, and always did, are obviously: happier parents.

5.       Good friends and peers who share the experience of parenthood. “Research suggests that parents who have friends or peer support groups with whom they can talk about the challenges of parenthood do markedly better than parents who go it alone.”  But the influence of family and friends can be for good or ill.  Family and friends who encourage strife or who give a bad example are no support for married parents.  On the other hand, couples who experience high levels of support from family and friends for their marriage also report a more happy marriage. This factor ranks no. 5 for women, but is not in the top five for husbands.

6.       Shared and practiced religion. Couples who attend religious services together are more happy parents. Couples who subjectively feel ‘God at the center’ of their marriage are even more happy. “Shared religious attendance is linked to an increase of more than 3 percentage points that a parent is very happy in marriage, and to a decrease of more than 3 percentage points that a parent is prone to separation or divorce.” (These percentages increase 8-fold for couples who see a divine presence in their marriage.) – It strikes me that couples with young children who attend services together also have either (i) very well behaved children or (ii) a flexible solution for childcare.  – This factor ranks no. 5 for husbands but is not among the top five for wives.

These are the top 6 relationship factors that make husbands and wives happier parents. Our next special will look at the top social factors with the same influence…stay tuned!

Happy Xmas tide until then!