Marriage and the Art of Game Theory

When applied correctly, game theory can actually save you marriage –
Or at least that’s what Daily Beast editor Paula Szuchman claims in her book It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes. In her book, Szuchman rationalizes how marriage is a game involving two players whom could make use of some basic economic theories to achieve a balanced relationship. “To cooperate or not to cooperate? To budge or stand your ground? To say ‘OK, fine’ or ‘not a chance’? These are questions married people find themselves asking with surprising frequency,” Szuchman explains. “The great thing about game theory is that it tackles situations in which you can’t have it all, but you’d like to at least achieve the best results possible.” In this context, Economics could be a useful tool in forging equilibrium between two spouses.


In a relationship, compromise is often the glue that holds everything together. According to popular game theory, the best choices for all parties are often a compromise on all parts, even when its not the maximum reward possible. Theoretically, game theory is an applicable tool towards building a successful relationship, but is there something unique to relationships that make them unpredictable and unable to be replicated? In most usages of game theory, the value of expected rewards are more quantitative when what determines a “good relationship” is quite subjective and abstract. Even more so, people probably act less rational in their relationships because of the passion and emotional ties that often control people. Game theory can indeed be applied to solve challenges like chores and scheduling to ensure an efficient system within the relationship, but otherwise preferences between people are often not as formulaic as most other economic scenarios.


But in theory, married couples seeking efficiency could look to game theory to help them achieve successful compromises where both spouses feel better off. This is of course given that each person values the same things equally. Whether or not this helps maintain a marriage or just make it streamlined is up for the individual to find out.



2 thoughts on “Marriage and the Art of Game Theory”

  1. Interesting take on game theory. You mentioned compromise in relationship “even when its not the maximum reward possible” and I thought right away to the prisoner’s dilemma, where I often think, ‘if they just sucked it up and both trusted each other they’d be so much better off!’. This game, the marriage, has a distinctly different time series and relationship than the prisoner’s dilemma decision. In this case, the level of trust and willingness to sacrifice (albeit grudgingly) is higher than being an accomplice. My argument is that it might be possible to sacrifice and compromise with your significant and still reach the maximum reward. As we know with the prisoner’s dilemma, if both parties cooperated in staying silent, they would reach maximum average. In the case of a marriage, there may be many points where you have to compromise and trust one another- who to get the kids from school, clean that dirty old bathroom, etc. Maybe compromise could help them reach a higher reward, given the long time series of this game and dependence on one another.

  2. I think this is a very interesting way to apply game theory to real life. I think of the example professor had in class with the different shows and showed how they have an equilibrium and even a mixed strategy was and equilibrium to that problem. I also find what steven said interesting in that their is trust in a relationship unlike the prisoners dilemma so the players in marriage can actually receive the best payoffs because they can trust each other and suck it up and in turn maximize their payoffs. This article also make me think of the different areas of economics you could apply to a marriage like comparative advantage and what not which i think is interesting.

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