The Portfolio Theory of Marriage

My wife and I met in business school (a statistically unlikely prospect if you stop to think about it). One of the many relationship advantages this confers is a large shared vocabulary of concepts we can use not only to communicate about our work lives, but that we often apply (sometimes in jest, sometimes not) to our lives outside of work. One of the most enduring of these half-jokes is that our decision to get married sprang from a rational application of Modern Portfolio Theory. As our relationship has matured (we’re closing in on 10 years together), the kernel of truth behind this idea has developed to the point that it’s a useful (partial) explanation for what makes our relationship work.

The joke sprang from a facile observation about our appetite for professional risk. My wife grew up in a family that valued stability, respected established institutions and viewed an executive role within a name-brand enterprise as the logical aspiration of a career in business. As an adult, she can see this cultural conditioning with a clear eye, but its influence is clearly visible in the arc of her career choices.

To outward appearances my own upbringing was not so different, but somehow I came away with a more idealistic and free-spirited bent, including a strong inclination to question established authority figures and the institutions they represent. Not surprisingly, my work life reflects that temperament: I’ve sought out smaller and less well-known companies (including a few I’ve started myself), changed jobs more often, and seen much greater earnings volatility than Emily has.

In the language of Portfolio Theory, our career choices have complementary risk-return profiles. I’m the speculative, high-beta security, with strong upside potential but significant downside risk and high expected volatility. She’s the blue chip, likely to exhibit solid and steady earnings growth with little risk to the downside but an equally low probability of market-beating performance. In theory (and in real life), we’re better together.

What’s interesting (at least to us), is how much this model reflects our partnership in areas beyond our expected earnings. As just one example, a few years back Emily shifted her career focus from for-profit to not-for-profit work (a notable and emotionally weighty decision given her cultural conditioning). She now works as a program officer for a large family foundation; her specific portfolio is to catalyze access to broadband connectivity for the largest possible number of low-income and otherwise disenfranchised groups throughout the U.S. In a very real way, her work and mine are now mirror images of each other, both in content and in emotional valence.

I spend my days thinking about how technology can change the lives of a relatively thin and rarefied slice of the global population, those for whom Internet access is as integral to their daily lives as water and electricity. She spends hers looking for creative ways to push that same benefit down to the least advantaged tiers of our community. My daily interactions are mostly limited to people who (at least in the macroeconomic sense) know no want: investors, entrepreneurs, software developers and other types of knowledge workers who sit at the very top of the economic pyramid. Emily’s work keeps her attuned to the realities and needs of those at the very bottom.

Just as we each benefit from the other’s earnings profile, we also benefit at least as much from our ability to share knowledge and experiences across these parallel universes. Having left the for-profit world behind, Emily stays connected through me to the strange passions and preoccupations of startup culture. But even more importantly, her daily awareness of the desperate condition in which far too many of our fellow humans live helps me put my work in appropriate perspective. In effect, I am the agent of our shared capitalist impulses, while she enacts our mutual desire to give back to the community. Here, as in so many other ways, we are much better as team than we could ever be as individuals. And in a marriage, just like an investment portfolio, that’s what it’s all about.