Can Adam Smith save your marriage? Four steps of 'Spousonomics'

Every marriage is a little business. "Economics is about how to allocate scarce resources," says Paula Szuchman, coauthor with Jenny Anderson of "Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes." "That's what married people are trying to do, given that they have limited resources – time, money, patience." Marriage experts and even economists aren't ready to replace Dear Abby with Adam Smith. "Marriage is more than an economic transaction." says Raymond Fisman, a Columbia University economist. Still, he's a fan of the book. Test these four economic principles on your marriage:

1.Who washes the dishes? (division of labor)

One challenge of marriage is deciding who will do what. Spouses will be happier and have more leisure time if they pay attention to Adam Smith, who said tasks should be divvied up according to who does them most efficiently. (Photo illustration/Katarina Sundelin/Altopress/Newscom/File)

Principle: As Adam Smith explained, businesses thrive when workers specialize and do what they do best. Its offshoot, comparative advantage – in which nations produce what they're best at making – is the foundation of free trade.

Payoff: Think of your marriage as an economy and you and your spouse as trading partners exchanging goods and services in the form of household chores. Just as Japan makes quality electronics and Italy stitches the best suits, so too can each spouse take on the chores he or she does relatively better or faster. "Everyone is better off if they go their separate ways and do what each does best," says Professor Fisman. "I cook more efficiently than my wife," but his wife is more effective at cleaning, he adds.

Lose the fight, win a happy marriage (loss aversion)

Loss aversion is what makes couples stay up and fight all night, refuse to compromise or apologize, and not recognize the good things in front of them, according to behavioral economists. When you get to that point, call a timeout. (Photo illustration/Sean O'Brien/Newscom/File)

Principle: As behavioral economists like to point out, we become irrational when we're losing. One landmark study suggests losses hurt twice as much as gains satisfy, all of which means humans try to avoid losing at all costs.

Payoff: Loss aversion is what makes couples stay up and fight all night, refuse to compromise or apologize, and not recognize the good things in front of them because they're too focused on how things used to be. "Whenever we feel like losing something, we act rashly," says Ms. Szuchman. "I still like to be right, but I do try a lot more to call a timeout when I know that I just keep saying the same thing or when I know I just don't want to lose."

Kids and the changes they bring can kick-start a couple’s loss aversion, too, adds Szuchman. Instead of looking back fondly on the “good times,” and measuring everything against those carefree days in your 20s, reframe, consider what you’ve gained, and establish a new status quo.

Don't take your spouse for granted (moral hazard)

Don't treat your marriage as 'too big to fail.' Just as when you're in public, put your best foot forward when you're at home with your spouse. (And lose those holey socks!) (Photo illustration/Mareen Fischinger/Westend61/Newscom/File)

Principle: Moral hazard is the idea that people or firms behave more recklessly when they're insured against risk. That's one reason why many big financial institutions engaged in risky lending in the last decade. They knew Uncle Sam could bail them out.

Payoff: It's also why singles exercise, groom, and put their best foot forward – and married folks, well, don't always. "What's great about marriage is that it can be safe harbor," says Szuchman. "You're with your best friend, you can be yourself.... But you shouldn't see your marriage as a safety net, as 'too big to fail.' " She suggests couples combat moral hazard by ensuring each partner is fully invested in the relationship and is accountable. "Take little steps," advises Szuchman. Just as you make an effort to get up in the morning and look good for work, do the same for your spouse. And don't always pick up the slack, she adds. "There's no better incentive for someone to do something than the fact it [otherwise] won't get done."

How to get your spouse to do what you want (incentives)

People respond to incentives, but recognition and trust trump monetary rewards. So trust your spouse to get jobs done. It's more effective than nagging. (Photo illustration/picture-alliance/Jörg Lange/Newscom/File)

Principle: Workers respond to incentives. They show up at the office every morning because they're paid. Oddly enough, recognition and trust trump monetary rewards. "You can give someone a raise to incentivize them to do a better job, but after time the money wears off," says Szuchman. But people who are recognized for their work and who feel trusted to get the job done are more motivated than those who are paid a bit more.

Payoff: Szuchman and her husband are members of a food co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they're each required to complete several hours of volunteer work each month. Szuchman's husband often forgot or skipped his volunteer shifts, which meant they were both suspended from the co-op. "When I stopped nagging him about his shifts, not only did he start doing it, but when he doesn't do it, I'm not as bothered by it," says Szuchman, noting that the difference was that she trusted him to get the job done. Trust establishes an atmosphere of goodwill.