Thursday, January 13, 2005

Will Your Marriage Last?

One of my favorite radio programs is This American Life.

If you've never heard it, go. Go now. Seek it out.

It is usually broadcasted by your local NPR station through WBEZ Chicago. You can also check out episodes through the link above, or you can purchase past programs through

Anyway, on one recent program titled "The Sanctity of Marriage", host Ira Glass explores marriage. The first of the three parts to the show was about a marriage researcher named John Gottman. Here's the description of the show from the Website:

Act One. What Really Happens in Marriage. Ira visits marital researcher John Gottman, who's part of a generation of researchers that have revolutionized the way we see marriage by observing successful and unsuccessful marriages and trying to figure out what the successful happy ones are doing that the ones who end up in divorce are not. Marriage research and links to marriage education programs for couples are online at

This sort of thing is right up my alley. I've always been interested in what couples argue about. Unfortunately, economists are way behind the curve on marriage research. They only started to really focus on the economics of the household in the 1970s, which is ironic because the term "economics" originates from a Greek work "oeconomicus" which essentially means "the management of the household."

This initial research was pioneered by (or at least credited to) Gary Becker. he applied the international trade model to the division of labor in the household. Basically, his conclusion is that women are suited to household labor and men to wage labor in the market due to both biological and social factors. Because of this, they should each specialize in their own separate spheres and exchange the fruits of their labor.

He gives a nod to homosexual couples saying that they cannot exploit the natural differences in comparative advantages that heterosexual couples have and, therefore, are inefficient.

Of course, there are a kazillion holes in this theory, not the least of them are that there is a power dynamic in the household and that couples negotiate the division of labor.

Enter game theory. Etc. Etc.

During grad school I did some qualitative research on the division of labor in lesbian households, but was never funded for the research, so I then considered writing my Ph.D. dissertation on the change in the division of labor in households in formerly socialist countries as they navigated the transition to market economies.

Anyway, this is all to say that I am interested.

The research discussed on This American Life was fascinating. What they do is invite couples in to discuss some contentious topic. Usually couples fight about sex, work and money (this conclusion was made by one seminal study by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz in 1983 when the researchers interviewed 600 couples). While discussing the issue, the couples are videotaped and scrutinized for everything that they say and do. Every comment receives a code: hostile, forgiving, angry, disrespectful, respectful etc. etc. What they have found is that their system can predict fairly accurately whether a couple will be together in 5, 10, 15 years.

The Ira Glass (This American Life host) asked about gay marriage.

This is where it got interesting. The researcher said that in his limited experience of the gay couples, their communication styles were better than the best heterosexual couples.

They included a snippet of one interview with a gay couple discussing sex and who usually initiates it. One guy said something to the effect of

You know, your body style is not really my preferred body style.

And the other guy replied

I know but... blah blah blah.

They totally got past that with respect and love and moved on to the main point. There was no trace of insecurity or anger or whatever. The researcher was astonished and refused to speculate as to why this might be without further testing.

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