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Profit from making your marriage last

Last night, I did something I've never done before.

This morning, disbelieving, I open my underwear drawer to check I didn't dream it. Realising it will be impossible to hide my actions from my husband, I nudge him awake, and confess: “Darling, last night, I put away the washing. All of it. The towering piles of clean laundry that usually perch precariously on every available surface — they're all gone.”

Suddenly our sons burst into the room, as excited as if Father Christmas had paid them a bonus visit. “Mum, my drawers aren't empty any more!” the six-year-old cries. My husband opens his drawers to rows of clean socks and pants. Incredulous, he whispers a heartfelt “Thank you”.

So what prompted my epiphany? Spousonomics: a new book that claims economics is the surest route to marital bliss. Authors Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, journalists from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, see marriage as a speculative venture.

Investment

Their book aims to teach you how to maximise returns on the biggest investment of your life, and they write: “You have no good reason to think it will pay off - roughly half of all marriages don't — but you buy into it anyway, hoping, assuming, betting the odds that you're one of the 50pc for whom it will pay off. But here's the rub: the only way you stand a chance of success is if you treat your marriage like a longterm investment, sticking it out when the going gets tough, profits stagnate and shareholders revolt.”

The authors believe economics provides dispassionate, logical solutions to the complex domestic disputes. “For all intents and purposes, your marriage is a business, a business that flourishes in boom times but at other times feels like running a marathon the morning after a night of too many margaritas. It feels like work.”

Spousonomics advises making marriage work by applying economic principles such as division of labour (how to determine who does what), supply and demand (yes, how to have more sex) and loss aversion (or how to get over our fear of losing, and stop having the same arguments repeatedly).

A romantic at heart with no head for figures, I balked at the idea that economics has anything to teach us about relationships.

When I said “I do” I signed up for hearts and flowers, not spreadsheets and flow charts.

According to the authors, domestic tasks are one of the most divisive issues couples face, but Szuchman and Anderson believe housework wars can be resolved by division of labour, a concept formed in 1776 by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics.

Our first mistake, and the root cause of my washing mountain, was assigning our household chores inefficiently. We had muddled through on the vague notion that we'd each do our bit. Except my idea of his “bit” and his idea of my “bit” weren't quite aligned. Consequently, lots of household tasks were left undone and we were duplicating effort.

We learned, instead, to talk about the chores that matter to us and divvy up the domestic tasks according to comparative advantage (or who fulfils each task most efficiently), an economic theory, defined by economist David Ricardo, which is the foundation of free trade.

Admittedly that prompted a robust discussion about our respective strengths - it turns out we both think we're the only one who knows how to load a dishwasher properly - but the upshot is laundry is officially my domain and I'm off the hook for gardening and recycling.

But as I've said, the real revelation came late at night when I realised that I procrastinate in a misguided act of rebellion, fuelled by resentment that I have become the unwilling chief washerwoman for three other human beings. But my rebellion backfires on me because I am routinely forced to spend weekends looking for items of school uniform.

Incentives

Which brings me to another economic principle. Workers need to be incentivised, and are unlikely to do even the jobs they commit to unless adequately recompensed, though Spousonomics states that caring about the outcome is sometimes reward enough. Incentives - in the form of bonuses - are a cornerstone of modern economics, the authors write. “Pay workers an hourly wage and you will get an hourly wage type of performance; offer workers the promise of a windfall and they will work as if their lives and the lives of their children and their mothers depended on it.”

Incentives

Applying this principle to your marital economy should mean that everyone's performance skyrockets. It works.

Laundry is a thankless task, but waking up to a weekend blissfully un-blighted by hours of hunting for errant items of PE kit incentivised me to keep it up.

It's catching, too. Suddenly the garden is much less unsightly, and the jam jars and empty wine bottles have vanished. But my favourite spousonomic is the bubble theory, or the idea that a marriage is subject to the same “cycle” as the economy, and can consequently find itself in a recession. “In technical terms, a bubble forms when prices for something rise way beyond its actual worth. They rise because people believe those prices will only keep rising, no matter how absurd they get.”

Then the bubble bursts, and a bust follows. Spousonomics offers insight into what can cause a bubble in a marital economy, how to identify bubbles before they get out of hand, and how to recover if the bubble bursts.

Spousonomics warns that housework isn't a trivial aspect of marriage. It can be a reason why marriages fail. After all, what hope is there for resolving serious conflicts if you can't tackle whose turn it is to clean the toilet?

I have Spousonomics to thank for a much less chaotic household. It might not seem like rocket science, but as I spend Sunday night relaxing on the sofa instead of seething with resentment and muttering about the mess, I reckon it's not far off.