Should we rethink the reasons for divorce?

23rd January, 2010

Dear Economist,
The betting markets reckon Elin Nordgren will shortly divorce Tiger Woods. Considering the experiences of the wives of Shane Warne and Bill Clinton, that seems hasty. Shane Warne’s wife tolerated his scandals for years before divorcing him. Australian cricketers do not make as much money as global golf stars, hence, the probability of her receiving a large alimony was low. It would have been rational for someone in her position to try to salvage the marriage and lay aside their emotions. Hillary Clinton had a much lower probability of political success as a divorcee.
I think we should look at economic rather than emotional reasons for divorce. Have I discovered a new canon in marital economics?
Chetan S.

Dear Chetan,

Your theory goes well beyond Ray Fair’s “Theory of Extramarital Affairs”, published in the Journal of Political Economy. Still, you need to clarify your reasoning a little. You contrast Shane Warne’s earnings with those of Tiger Woods, which suggests you have in mind some kind of income effect, where the richer the husband, the more likely the wife is to divorce him. This has the merit of being a falsifiable theory, but I am not sure it is true.

Such cases belong instead to the theory of the firm. When two units of production – Hillary and Bill, say – are worth more together than they are separately, we call them “complementary assets”, and there is a strong reason to keep them together. If one of the units of production is sleeping with a pancake waitress, then that is a reason to separate them. It’s all a question of how annoying the affairs are versus how strong the complementarities are. Hillary and Bill are highly complementary assets; this is less obvious for Nordgren and Woods. As for a general theory, there is plenty of data out there – a research project for a diligent student of economics such as yourself?

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