Imagine two people have the following relationship options:

Option A: Date
Option B: Be Friends
Option C: Stop Seeing Each Other

Person #1’s preference ordering is: {A, C, B}.  In English, #1 most prefers to date, and least prefers to just be friends.

Person #2’s preference ordering is: {B, C, A}.  In English, #2 most prefers to just be friends, and least prefers to date.

In popular stereotypes, Person #1 is male, and Person #2 is female.  But role reversal is probably common, too.

Given these preferences, anything other than C naturally leads to bad feelings.  Person #1 resents being stuck in “the friend zone.”  Person #2 resents Person #1’s view that being friends is an imposition or probationary situation.  It’s easy to see how they might angrily quarrel with each other, with Person #1 harping on his superiority to whoever Person #2 dates, and Person #2 pointing out that Person #1 should be grateful for their friendship.  The fight could get really ugly, as in the web comic “The Friend-Zoner vs. Nice Guy.

On reflection, though, this quarreling is the epitome of futility.  Sure, argument has been known to change preferences.  But these preferences?  Is #1 really going to argue #2 into feeling attracted to him when she’s not?  Is #2 really going to argue #1 out of his feelings of yearning and rejection?  Extremely unlikely.  Quarreling is ultimately a form of bargaining.  With preference orderings {A, C, B} and {B, C, A}, the only mutually beneficial bargain is ceasing to deal with each other.  And since either person can instantly and unilaterally jump to C by saying, “So long, have a nice life,” what’s the point of quarreling to get there?

If you’re deeply economistic, you’ll naturally ask, “Why not consider Option D: side payments?”  “If you agree to just be friends, I’ll do your laundry” or “If you agree to date, I’ll pay for every meal.”  But in many cases – if not most – offering or accepting side payments feels so degrading that neither side can accept it.  Option D is off the table because the parties’ expanded rankings are {A, C, B, D} and {B, C, A, D}.

Needless to say, people have imperfect information about other people’s preferences.  Indeed, people have imperfect information about their own preferences.  Yet in many real world relationships, preferences are fairly obvious – and my analysis applies.

I suspect that many non-economists will dismiss this whole approach as “overly analytical.”  I beg to differ.  Widespread futile quarreling is a strong sign that emotional approaches have failed.  The only way out is to calm down and admit that bad matches aren’t anyone’s fault.  When two people want incompatible things, they should politely say goodbye and move on with their lives.  Almost everyone can see this by the time they’re 40.  With economics by your side, you can attain this enlightened state at once.