Marriage and other romantic relationships have often been cast as being fundamentally economic in nature. In most cases, this perspective has been taken by those critical of marriage (“marriage is long term prostitution”). However, there are some who take a positive view of marriage seen through the lens of economics. One recent book is Spousonomics, which I have not read. Like most men, I’m not much on reading books on relationships. However, hearing about the book did get me thinking about the general subject of casting a relationship in economic terms.
On the face of it, this perspective makes perfect sense. Legally, marriage is fundamentally about property rights: who owns what and who gets what when the marriage almost inevitably fails. However, that part is so obvious that it is hardly interesting to even write anymore about it. Instead, I will focus on the view that characterizing relations in economic terms is a “bad thing.”
A case can be made for this being, in fact, bad. After all, deep in our secret hearts we want to believe in a love that is pure and unsullied by such matters as value exchanged and crass things like cash. I do, of course, agree with that. Love should not be about money (although money can kill love) nor should it be regarded as a crude matter of toting up gains and losses. However, I do think that it makes sense to consider relationships in terms of value.
While the feeling of love has value, it is one value among many in a relationship. While this might sound cynical, you can test this yourself: imagine that somehow all you have is love for someone and nothing else. No pleasure in their company, no common interests, and so on. Just someone the existence of love. While I suspect that is not even possible, that would seem to show that love is not the sole value in a relationship and is probably not enough to keep a relationship going by itself.
In addition to love (and one hopes that love is at least present) there must also be other matters of value. These things (though I dislike using that word here) could include the pleasure of the other person’s company, shared interests, emotional support, and so on. It is the sum of these factors that make a relationship worthwhile or not. This is, of course, a matter of value.
But, someone might say, this still seems like crude economics. It makes relationship like a business merger or an alliance: you should be in it if it creates more value for you than the alternatives. That, one might say, is crass economics.
However, I have two responses. First, that is how you, good reader, really function. Think about it honestly and consider relationships you have ended and why. Second, this does not so much cast relations ships in a negative light as economics in a better light. Economics is, of course, based on human relationships (and not the other way around). As such, the reason why relationships seem to be analyzable in economic terms is that economics are forms of human relationships. As such, economics can be analyzable in terms of human relationships-although it is but a narrow set of possible human relations.
So, perhaps we should not say that marriage is a form of economics, but that economics is a form of marriage. Or not.