Do we marry for love?

I took this photo ten years ago at a wedding I was invited to. As far as I know, the two are still happily married.

Economists sometimes attract attention at weddings. When they can’t keep their thoughts to themselves. Then, the good mood at the party can plummet.

Because most economists tend to see a market in everything. Not only stock exchanges or the labour market are of interest to them, but human coexistence in general.

Love life is a special challenge for these economists. Because there is no market to be seen at first glance, no rationally acting actors. Because when it comes to love, emotions supposedly predominate; love turns off the mind.

Economists, therefore, like to decipher languorous words and sighed promises. They see in people the deliberative rationalists who make every decision to their own advantage. They also see people who sometimes also have to put up with disadvantages because whoever does one thing has to leave out another.

Opportunity cost is what economists call it when you miss out on something because you chose something else.

You reading this text could instead water the wilting flowers in the living room, start your office work, or look out the train window and watch the scenery rushing by. But you have chosen to read. This increases your opportunity cost with every line of text.

Of course, you don’t have to think like that. Economists think so. Two economists meet on the street. One asks: “How is your wife?” The other answers: “In relation to whom?” That’s supposed to be a joke. But actually, it‘s not.

In any case, such economists do not see a bridal couple blissfully walking down the aisle at weddings but two satisfied people who have had enough of looking for someone better. These economists hardly listen when the story of the two lovers’ finding each other is told; that supposed coincidences had to happen for the couple to get together finally, coincidences that weren’t coincidences because the two are obviously meant for each other.

For these economists, the soul mate story is simply self-deception, which conceals the fact that even before this wedding celebration, the bride and groom weighed the pros and cons of marriage very carefully, each for themselves, very quietly. And maybe not much was missing, and the confectioner would have sold one wedding cake less.

As I said, these economists hardly listen to the love-finding story. Meanwhile, they wonder how it is possible that the very day is celebrated when two people sign a contract that regulates things in the event that they will no longer love each other, that maybe they will even hate each other, at least no longer want to live together – maybe because one of the two has run into someone better after all.

The economic consideration of love life does not begin with weddings. Dating is a broad field of research. For example, scientists have examined the CVs of 21,840 Danes and found that the relationship status determines the living space: Danish singles are drawn to cities like Aarhus or Copenhagen, and those who are married go back to the country. 

This behaviour makes totally sense. Everyone is an economist when looking for a partner. In the city, the “search costs” are considerably lower because of the large range of possible partners.

So, the city is a perfect marriage market. And how long are we looking for a partner? When and why do we decide to stay with one, maybe have children with them, grow old with them? “Well, until the right one comes along,” say the soul mate supporters. “Until the costs of the further search outweigh the possible gain through an even better partner,” economizes the economist.

But how should one know what “possible gains” were still to come? With the 37 per cent rule of probability calculation! If you test the first 37 per cent of the available partners and then take the first one that is better than the previously tested ones, there is a high probability that you will get the best or second best. That’s not intuition; it’s math.

But you never know every possible partner, do you? So you don’t know how many to test, right? That’s correct. Empiricism helps here. It advises testing twelve potential partners! And then get married! 

Perhaps economists are not so welcome at weddings because they tend to be grumpy there. From an economic point of view, marriage is a catastrophe. At least at first glance. Because marriage excludes all competition. You would never think of signing a contract in a shop that obliges you to only shop there for the rest of your life. This is what you do with a marriage contract. The fact that other mothers also have beautiful daughters and sons should be ignored in the future. One marches voluntarily into the monopoly of marriage. 


Because married couples are economists too! Voluntary self-restraint has two advantages.

One is the promise of not parting encourages the development of partner-specific investments. You make an effort to get to know each other, maybe arrange a flat, have a child. The security of staying together by a marriage contract makes such investments more worthwhile. In working life, where such binding contracts are forbidden, the “hold up” problem arises. There is no investment in training if the employer has to fear that their employees will make off with the newly acquired knowledge and are hired with the competition.

The other is, a marriage contract separates the “good” from the “bad” partners. Marriage selects. If you don’t mean it seriously, if you don’t want to make a long-term commitment, you won’t get married, at least not if separation will cost you dearly. Marriage is, therefore, the ultimate test of whether the vows of love are hot air or whether the partner is really willing to walk the talk. 

You could also say: Whoever gets married does not trust their partner; they want to play it safe. But only economists say things like that.

What economists also say, by the way: Get married! Because economists have also found out that, on average, those who marry are happier, richer and healthier than singles.

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