Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Importance of Gifts in Marriage

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

The Importance of Gifts in Marriage

Article excerpt


The basic nature of marriage has changed as it has shifted from being an institution primarily based on increasing the family members' material well-being to one based increasingly on improving the spouses' psychological welfare. (1) Women in particular when considering marriage place an important emphasis on psychological goals, such as empathy and understanding. (2) Problems associated with identifying key attributes in potential mates and negotiating efficient outcomes in this new environment have reduced the likelihood that people will be successful in obtaining the potential benefits of marriage, thereby contributing to the increase in the divorce rate since World War II. (3)

In this article, a model of the family is developed that expands household production to include gifts, which are goods that are produced by one spouse but generally only have direct value to the other spouse. Initially, the economic models of the family are reviewed that assume that the utilities of family members are based on their access to private and shared (public) goods, which generate some utility for their producer. Gifts are also an important component of domestic production. Although gifts can be tangible, such as flowers or jewelery, many of them are psychological, such as empathy, affection, and understanding. Because gifts can be intangible, it is more difficult to determine a potential mate's productivity prior to marriage and to negotiate welfare-enhancing production and distribution during marriage. The result could be a divorce. The importance of psychological gifts in the decision to dissolve a marriage is tested using data from the National Survey of Families and Households.


Initially, the economic models of the family emphasized the material gains from marriage. Gary Becker (1965, 1991) presented the first systematic analysis of the family as he extended his earlier work on consumptive behavior in which people use their time and income to produce commodities to maximize their utility. Through marriage people can increase their access to commodities relative to those available to them when single. The production of these commodities benefits from increased specialization by the family members, which traditionally meant that women specialized in domestic activities, especially childbearing, while men worked outside the home. The common preference or unitary model associated with Becker uses altruism as a central force within the family as the allocation of the gains from marriage is based on maximizing the household bead's utility. This model assumes that a benevolent or altruistic decision maker has incentives to maximize the family's welfare.

Modifications to this model occurred as it was recognized that it was not consistent with the neoclassical model to attribute a utility function to a family that did not address the potentially conflicting utility preferences of the spouses. The recognition that altruism may not be a strong enough force to overcome the individual preferences within a family, along with the need to consider public goods explicitly within the analysis of the family, lead to new bargaining models. Manser and Brown (1980) and McElroy and Horney (1981) applied the Nash cooperative bargaining model to marriage. These authors model marriage as a static bilateral monopoly in which a married couple can either remain married or divorce. Manser and Brown, for example, identify the gains from marriage that result from the presence of shared goods and from love and companionship. (4) Household public goods were introduced as an integral part of these models of family behavior as they emphasize the benefits of shared public goods as a reason that marriage yields a utility surplus over living separately. These authors propose that the symmetric Nash bargaining model determines the division of potential gains from marriage with the threat point being the dissolution of the marriage. …

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