Sex, love and romance are the obsessions of poets and songwriters. Why not of economists, too? In a new book, “Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love,” Marina Adshade sees a world where our love lives are being transformed by women’s growing economic power, the vast online dating market and other distinctly unromantic factors. Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman spoke with the economist, who teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, about what the dismal science reveals about affairs of the heart. (Adshade's blog is here.) The transcript has been edited.
Q: Why look at sex and relationships from the perspective of economics?
A: Economics allows us to strip away morality and political beliefs and to look at relationships in a measurable way -- seeing relationships as responding to market forces.
And just because I look at dating and marriage as a market doesn’t mean that there’s no passion and romance. Then again, if that were the most important, we’d see much more randomized matching than we do. We see a lot of couples matching over education and income and other economic factors.
Q: You have a chapter about household bargaining. How does bargaining affect relationships -- for example, how much each member of a couple works?
A: Traditionally, economists have argued that because men have always earned more than woman, it made sense that men went into the workforce and women spent the majority of their time staying at home. That was the most efficient allocation of the household’s labor.
In 28 percent of American marriages, the wife has more education than her husband.
This has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Women are so much more educated than in the past. In 28 percent of American marriages, the wife has more education than her husband, compared to over 19 percent of marriages in which the husband is better educated than the wife. Even though men on average earn more than women, there are a lot more families where women earn more than men.
In families where woman have greater earning potential, we should see more women dedicating more hours of their life to working, and husbands picking up the slack at home.
Q: How does this affect the power dynamics in a relationship?
A: We see it all the time: The person who earns the most gets much greater say in how their relationship works.
We often think that men get to make a lot of the decisions. I think this has been a function of male income. Now we’re getting households where women are getting more say in the decision-making because they’re earning higher incomes than their husbands.
I’m not suggesting the way people conduct their marriages is that every day you look at the other person and say, “Do as I say or I’m leaving.” That’s not really true, but women’s increased opportunities do give them more bargaining power in the house.
Q: You say negotiations can be very different for same-sex relationships and for unmarried straight couples.
A: If you look at heterosexual couples where one person is older than the other, that gives the older person more bargaining power. The reverse is true in unmarried same-sex relationships, where the younger person holds more bargaining power. That’s a very interesting, surprising finding because it suggests that the market for married couples isn’t as free as we think it is.
For same-sex couples that aren’t married -- and this data was collected before there was legal marriage for same-sex couples -- it’s just easier to leave the relationship. You don’t explicitly threaten to leave, but you always know there is an option. That gives you an incentive to split the bargaining power more equally.
For married heterosexual couples, that's not the case, because it’s actually difficult to get out of a marriage.
By opening up the market, online dating is making people pickier. They're not settling as quickly as in the past.
Q: What role does wealth play in choosing a sexual partner or mate?
A: In terms of whom we have sex with, that has to do with lots of qualities other than income and wealth. It has to do with sorting over things like attractiveness and experience.
Things like income and wealth do tend to matter in relationships. The interesting thing about relationships -- and this is why the market perspective is so useful -- is that we have to find somebody who we want but who also wants us.
I might want someone who earns $250,000 a year and owns a home here in Vancouver. (That's very impressive -- anybody who owns real estate in the city.) Of course those people are very rare. They can say, “I also want to find someone who has a high income or who owns real estate.”
So you get this “market sorting.” The people at the top match up with people at the top. As we move down in education or income or wealth, people match with each other.
Q: How does this affect online dating?
A: The evidence suggests that when men search online, they don’t care that much about income. However, when we look at whom they marry, we find very close marital sorting over income and education and wealth. So it seems to be important in their decision-making. It doesn't mean those other things don’t matter.
Q: So wealth might not affect who we go on dates with, but might affect who we continue to date.
A: When we’re young, we might date a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. But making the long-term commitment is a little different.
By opening up the market, online dating is making people pickier. People are setting higher standards. They're not settling as quickly as in the past, when they had smaller markets to draw from. Theoretically, that should lead to higher-quality relationships and marriages and to a decline in divorce.
Now we should be in a position where the person who is best at the job is doing the job. That has to be better for families.
Q: It also means that we're single for longer.
A: We choose to be single longer because we’re setting standards a lot higher than in the past. That’s a choice. It's not being imposed on us.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future of romantic relationships?
A: We may marry later and spend a smaller fraction of our life being married. But in the last 10 years the percentage of the population that has been married at some point by the time they’re 45 has actually increased. So it’s not true that we’re not marrying and not true that we’re divorcing at higher rates. We have every reason to be optimistic.
Q: Are power relationships going to be more transparent?
A: People will have more explicit conversations about these things. There will be much more equal sharing of power in marriages, more even distribution of household responsibilities.
Now we should be in a position where the person who is best at the job is doing the job. That has to be better for families. I know families where the kids are much better off in the care of their father. If the woman is best at making the financial decisions, she will have more opportunity to do that. It’s really liberating that families have the ability to choose the way they structure themselves.