Friday, July 31

Maybe Mom Was Wrong

As I wrote earlier this week, Rhona Mahony’s book Kidding Ourselves has gotten me thinking about my power to bargain with my artist husband. Mahony argues that women will not achieve economic equality until the cessation of the sexual division of labor, in which fathers tend to be the primary breadwinner in their families and mothers tend to be the primary homemaker and parent. Though Mahony does not argue that every couple should evenly split the “second shift” of unpaid labor—she rather envisions a future in which labor is evenly distributed between men and women across society—she does hope to give women the tools to negotiate for a better deal in their marriages.

According to Mahony, marriage is itself a kind of negotiation, which she defines as “any situation in which two or more people are interdependent, have some perceived conflict, can use strategic behavior, and have room for agreement.” Partners cooperate to create value—money, time, security, and happiness—and also compete to claim that value (which is not to say, by the way, that they don’t also share some of that value). In competing for that value, partners can stick tight or make trade-offs between and among interests, needs, and positions, and one partner tends to have an advantage over the other in this competition. In heterosexual relationships, the partner with the advantage tends to be the man, because the man tends to have the better “BATNA”, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”. To put it bluntly, men tend to have less to lose by leaving the marriage, which gives them better bargaining power within the marriage.

Before the birth of the Critter, I clearly had the better BATNA than Beckett. Even as a freelancer, I earned more than he did; plus, my potential for earnings are greater, my vocation (unlike his) does not tie me to living in or very near an expensive urban center, and the costs of pursuing my avocation are much lower than his, which include the rent on a studio and the need to purchase expensive paints and other materials. With the birth of the Critter, however, as happens for most women in heterosexual couples upon the birth of a first child, my threat point went much higher. In other words, any threat that I might leave is now much less credible than it might have been before: I am unlikely to leave both Beckett and the Critter, and leaving with the Critter would be way, way, way more difficult than it would be without him. The current economic downturn has also raised my threat point; my income just isn’t what it used to be (whose is?), and for the first time Beckett is bringing home more than I am (though we’ll see where things stand by the end of the year).

Below: The Critter, raising our threat points to new heights, despite having the worst BATNA of all

Despite my newly higher threat point, Beckett is gamely taking on an increasing share in the household work, and often (though hardly always) without my having to make much of a fuss. Maybe my BATNA, and thus my bargaining power, is still relatively good, or at least not that much worse than Beckett’s; maybe he’s just a great guy. But I shouldn’t fool myself. For one thing, by far the majority of the Critter care falls to me—more on that later. And for another thing, we’ve been “dealing with” a good part of the household work by doing it less frequently or not at all, which troubles me (and therefore costs me) a great deal more than it does Beckett.

Analyzing one’s relationship with a beloved spouse in terms of economics and game theory is probably not all that appealing to many (most?) people, but I must confess that I’m taking great pleasure in Mahony’s book and the insight it has given me just to see what changes I want to make and what obstacles might be in the way of making those changes. And anyway, I’m taking the economic analysis of our relationship pretty lightly, because the one thing that gives both Beckett and me a lousy BATNA has nothing to do with either our earning power or the costs of making our art. The truth is, both of us were pretty darn unhappy until we met each other.

Coming soon: commitment mechanisms and Critter care …

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