Can husbands and wives write financial contracts to reduce the level of infidelity in a relationship? Evidence from the unlikely source of Ugandan marriage contracts suggests that they can. In that country refundable bride prices reduce female infidelity but, not surprisingly, do little to curb male infidelity.
In Uganda the families of men pay a price for their sons’ brides, sometimes even before the women are born, that works as a security deposit against future bad behavior of the wife. Despite laws to prevent dissatisfied husbands from demanding refunds for their wives, a man who suspects that his wife is having sexual relations with another man will return to her family and ask for his bride price back.
A recent study uses a nationally representative Ugandan data set collected in confidential face-to-face interviews with both husbands and wives to determine if these contracts influence sexual behavior. In the whole sample, 5% of wives and 19% of husbands reported having been unfaithful in the previous twelve months. In the sample that only includes couples in which the husband paid a bride price, 2% of wives and 21% of husbands had been unfaithful. In the sample that only includes couples in which the husband had not paid a bride price, 10% of wives and 16% of men had been unfaithful.
So it appears that refundable bride prices reduce female infidelity and increase male infidelity. However, once the authors control for family characteristics (such as education, polygamy, children and whether or not the husband is a farmer) the male effect almost disappears, but the female effect persists and is statistically significant.
It could be the case that both families accurately, more or less, evaluate a woman’s risk of being unfaithful (for example they have some information about her previous sexual history) and take that into account when negotiating the bride price. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be the contract that is controlling the woman’s behavior, but rather the price that reflects the probability that she will not comply with the contract. This interpretation makes sense if the point of the bride price is to ensure that the husband is not raising children that are not his own – a high chance of raising another man’s children should lead to a low, or even zero, bride price.
Of course, you may think this system of writing financial contracts to ensure that women comply with their marriage vows is primitive, but what about prenuptial agreements that include clauses that limit the financial responsibilities of the husband if a wife is unfaithful, or vice versa? Do those contracts effectively control a spouse’s behavior?
I don’t think any work has been done on that topic, but prenuptial agreements raise the same issues as refundable bride prices in Uganda – they work to limit the ability of the contractually bound spouses to negotiate reciprocal fidelity.
Many married couples have an implicit arrangement that looks something like this: If you are faithful, I too will be faithful but if you cheat, then I will cheat as well. If one spouse loses the ability to cheat in response to being cheated on, because there is a financial penalty built into the contract, then that spouse also loses his/her bargaining card in the marital fidelity game.
It’s not just prenuptial contracts that reduce this bargaining power; courts in several states of the US reduce financial awards to a spouse in a divorce if he/she has been unfaithful. I wonder if lawmakers have considered the possibility that by doing so they are limiting the ability of wives/husbands to negotiate better behavior from their partner. Maybe the courts forgive reciprocal cheating, but let’s face it – society has always taken a much dimmer view of women who cheat than men.
Reference: Bishai, David and Shoshana Grossbard (2010). “Far above rubies: Bride price and extramarital sexual relations in Uganda.” Journal of Population Economics vol 23: p.p 1177–1187 DOI 10.1007/s00148-008-0226-3