THE TIT-FOR-TAT TRAP

If you ask couples if their marriage functions on a “tit-for-tat” or “quid-pro-quo” basis they will object strongly.  However, they will talk about “fairness” in their marriage.  We fall back on fairness as a way of making sure we get the things that we want in order to flourish in life.  To get what we want and still look like we are committed to our spouses, we fall back on the behavioral exchange model of the quid-pro-quo.

Quid-pro-quo basically means “You do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.”  In marriage, if you do enough good or “nice” things for your spouse, he will do good, “nice” things back.

Economists see such exchanges, which are about maximizing self-interest, mostly in terms of the notion of debt.   When you do something for your spouse, you have created implicitly a mental debt that he owes you something in return.  In economics, debt accrued in a transaction is a way of quantifying the transaction so it can come out fairly.

Noah Berlatsky in an article in The Atlantic makes it clear that: “You are not in a transaction with your spouse; you’re in a relationship.” Berlatsky’s article makes the point that it is seriously off the mark to try to “exchange” housework, creating a debt between the two of you, as a way to make things work out fairly.

Berlatsky seeks to remind you that you are not your spouse’s debtor, you are his spouse.  Berlatsky talks about how he and his wife manage household tasks.  Sometimes they each do the thing they like to do; she likes shopping, he likes scheduling child activities.  Sometimes they split doing the things they both dislike.  The one I like that Berlatsky describes is that they make a pact of mutual laziness and don’t do certain tasks at all. As an example, neither likes to cook very much, so they order out a fair bit.   Sometimes you should buy a new appliance rather than fret over going to the laundry.  Sometimes you help each other lower your standards so that less housework is required.   There are many win-win solutions to housework and childcare through negotiating collaboratively.

As Berlatsky says, “(h)ousework isn’t a debt wives owe to husbands, nor one husbands owe to wives….it’s the quotidian (daily) stuff of which the relationship is made.  We’re married, so we help each other.  And the helping isn’t to protect the marriage, or to keep the people in the marriage happy.  The helping is the marriage itself.”

Reference

Berlatsky, Noal.  Spouses Probably Shouldn’t Try to Split Household Tasks Exactly Evenly. the Atlantic.  March 19, 2013. (http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/spouses-probably-shouldnt-try-to-split-household-tasks-exactly-evenly/274133/0)

 

 

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