Arnold Kling  

The New Economics of Marriage

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Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers write


So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption...the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”.

...Hedonic marriage is different from productive marriage. In a world of specialization, the old adage was that “opposites attract,” and it made sense for husband and wife to have different interests in different spheres of life. Today, it is more important that we share similar values, enjoy similar activities, and find each other intellectually stimulating. Hedonic marriage leads people to be more likely to marry someone of their similar age, educational background, and even occupation. As likes are increasingly marrying likes, it isn’t surprising that we see increasing political pressure to expand marriage to same-sex couples.

...the high divorce rates among those marrying in the 1970s reflected a transition, as many married the right partner for the old specialization model of marriage, only to find that pairing hopelessly inadequate in the modern hedonic marriage.


Read the whole thing. This is a big idea.



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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

This sounds like an accurate description of my marriage. I seem to be part of a much smaller pattern too, though: I am a poet/fiction writer/scholar and my wife is a former social worker (current, too, as a Kindergarten teacher), my brother is a painter/sketch artist and his wife is a social worker, and I met an artist whose work was being shown at my brother's gallery whose wife was a social worker. I'm wondering if the artist-social worker marriage pattern is common among artists.

8 writes:

The divorce rate is falling because people aren't getting married anymore, like the couple that wrote this article. Many men refuse to marry because hedonic marriage is a bad bet: if their spouse becomes unhappy, she can exit with a net financial gain. And why get married, since marriage offers nothing beneficial? One can obtain all the benefit of a hedonic marriage without getting married.

In fact, if hedonic marriage is the new thing, then we do need regulation. Alimony, for instance, should be abolished.

Matthew writes:

I think 8 slam-dunked this one.

Floccina writes:

activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse

Sounds like sex.

Troy Camplin writes:

The divorce rate has nothing to do with the marriage rate. One measures the divorce rate against those who are already married. If the divorce rate is falling, it can only fall among those who are already married.

And how is a hedonic marriage a bad thing in any way? I'm married to my best friend. What's better than that?

liberty writes:

"The divorce rate has nothing to do with the marriage rate. One measures the divorce rate against those who are already married. If the divorce rate is falling, it can only fall among those who are already married."

That doesn't mean they are independent. If those most likely to divorce are the same people who in the modern era never get married then you'd expect a lower marriage rate to produce a lower divorce rate.

Whether that is good or bad is up to you: better to have married and divorced than never to have married at all? Who knows.

T Carrington writes:

I must agree that some individuals today do tend to fall in love with and marry other individuals of a similar background, thus creating what Stevenson and Wolfers’ call a “hedonic marriage.” However, I cannot help but point out the fact that a “hedonic marriage” restricts the couple to particular markets, thus limiting their possibilities in expanding and indulging in other exciting and stimulating markets.

In society today, it has become important for a lot of individuals to share similar values, activities, and intellect, but it has also come increasingly important for individuals to share incomes. An exciting component of marriage is the idea that there will be two incomes instead of one. Today, income is of special importance to individuals because people like to buy “things.” People usually want the best cars, houses, clothes, equipment, and etc. When individuals’ income increases then it means they can buy more of these things. But in a “hedonic marriage” it seems that they will be buying more of the same thing.

It is apparent that couples who have a “hedonic marriage” will inadvertently limit the number of markets by which they may participate. These restrictions may sit well with the couple, but I believe it is quite obvious that this type of marriage and its effects on a couple’s spending pattern will not sit well with sellers within today’s markets.

There are thousands of different markets in the U.S. by which individuals may purchase items. Sellers within these markets are looking for buyers to participate in their market and thus relinquish their cash to the seller. Sellers constantly research and develop products by which buyers demand so that they may then supply them with the product and thus obtain the buyers cash. It all reverts back to the simple economic theory of supply and demand.

Unfortunately, “hedonic marriages” will decrease the demand for certain markets and increase the demand for others within a particular household. Fortunately, there are thousands of households that have different values, enjoy different activities and have different levels of intellect. Henceforth, most markets are well secured unless the idea of a “hedonic society” develops.

Natasia writes:

If one marries for only old-fashioned beliefs, the marriage will probably not last as long as one built on similar interests in todays life. Marriage isn't valued like it was before. Now doctors marry doctors, instead of doctors marrying nurses aids since they would have more time at home. It isn't so much how well the wife takes care of the house, and how well the husband does at work; it now is about how many years you went to school, where you went to school, how much money you make a year. If your job is too demanding you hire a nanny for the kids, a maid for the house, go out for dinner, old values have been lost due to the fast moving pace of the world today.

JmZ writes:

The article “Marriage and the Market” provides intriguing thoughts that are well explained. The observation that the “shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption” drives successful modern marriages and contributes to the decline in divorce rates sounds plausible; however, is there empirical evidence to support this claim? In todays consumer-based, over indulgent economy, one may assume that couples - hetero or homo-sexual – marry, and remain happily married, due to “consumption complementarities” –or- “shared consumption”. Without the observed data to support this claim, this is just a hypothesis – albeit one that I believe may be true.

When reading this article with an economic bias it sounds reasonable; on the other hand, if looking at it from a sociological or anthropological perspective you may find that natural instincts are at play to satisfy basic human needs aside from “shared consumption”. Without conducting a scientific survey of an adequate sample we are only assuming either to be true. Although the “hedonic marriage” theory is possible, I would like to see the data compared to people who marry, and remain married, for “shared production” reasons.

Troy Camplin writes:

I can only speak from personal experience on this, but after a few years of disasterous dating, I went out of my way to make sure I only dated someone with a graduate degree and who definitely had strong overlapping interests. Thus, my wife and I go to museums, the opera, the ballet, plays, the symphony, art galleries, zoos, aquariums, and out birding. However, our educational and work backgrounds are quite different. Her B.A. is in psychology and her M.A. is in organizational development. She was a social worker and, after realizing how corrupt it was at every level and that 90% of the people she was helping didn't actually need any help, became a Kindergarten teacher. I, on the other hand, have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology, a M.A. in English, a Ph.D. in the humanities, and have worked in hotels and as an adjunct professor and even middle and high school teacher (we did seem to converge on the teaching). However, with my experience in teaching, I am now looking to do anything else. I originally went to get my M.A., though, to pursue creative writing -- and I still write fiction, poetry, and plays (I'm now working on a new play). In the meantime, my wife's interests have shifted slightly to evolutionary psychology. I'm one good job away from her going to grad school to get a degree in evolutionary psychology.

In fact, let me tell you an anecdote that proves the value of hedonic marriages. My wife and I have a friend who has been in a relationship for two years. My wife and I were having a rather animated discussion about something, when our friend came into the room and said, "What on earth could you two still have to talk about?" We talk about everything: work, family, what we saw in the news, what we read -- and then we get together and compare notes. Throw in perfect sexual compatibility, and what more could you want in a marriage?

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