Everybody knows, or has known, at least one couple in a romantic relationship that has lasted long past its expiration date. Their friends all know that they’re really not right for each other, that their relationship is dysfunctional in various ways, that at least one of them could do better on the singles market. And yet they stay together. Why?
The conventional wisdom, I think, is that relationships last too long because of cognitive biases and errors. Some people might remain because of simple status quo bias. Others may be too pessimistic about their outside prospects. Yet others focus myopically on the present relative to the future, thus giving insufficient weight to the gains from a better partner who may take a long time to find.
While these are all contributing factors, I think a more rational mechanism is also to blame. When people enter a relationship, they go through what Oliver Williamson termed the Fundamental Transformation. They invest in relationship-specific assets such as knowledge of each other’s tastes and quirks, routines that allow them to coordinate their schedules, and memories of special moments in their history. If they eventually move in together, the joint living space is yet another relationship-specific asset that requires a substantial investment in packing, decorating, and so on.
The value of all these assets would depreciate substantially upon the relationship’s demise. Knowledge of tastes and quirks goes unused, routines become obsolete, memories go sour. And for those who have moved in together, breaking up with each other often means breaking up with the home as well.
The existence of relationship-specific assets raises a current partner’s value relative to potential mates on the singles market. That means two things. First, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people stay with their current partners even when they could probably “do better,” because doing so means abandoning all those assets and (eventually) investing in new ones.
Second, we should expect to see some ex-post opportunism. Relationship-specific assets give both partners partial protection against market competition, which means they can reduce their contributions and still remain attached. Partners may let themselves get fat, shave less frequently, refuse to have sex as often, cut back on household chores, etc. They can do this as long as the reductions in quality are not so great as to swamp the value attributable to the relationship-specific assets.
Some opportunistic quality reductions can even make the relationship more resistant to a break-up. A partner who lets his appearance degrade (say, by getting fat) will have fewer desirable options on the singles market, and therefore will be less inclined to end the current relationship. And this raises a troubling question. You might think it’s a great thing for you if your mate diligently maintains his appearance, or starts working harder to improve it by (say) dieting and exercising more often. But these efforts could actually signal a lack of commitment to the relationship and a willingness to seek out other partners! If so, then a little bit of “relationship weight” might actually be your friend.
[Credit-Where-Credit-Is-Due Department: David Friedman applies the concept of asset specificity to marriage in Chapter 13 of Law’s Order, and that’s what first got me thinking of romantic relationships in these terms.]
[This-Blog-Is-Not-A-Personal-Diary Department: This post is not inspired by… oh, just read this, point #3.]