Two piggy banks surrounded by hearts. Winning at marriage.

Loss Aversion and Marriage: Simple Ways to be a Winner

Marriage Dynamics InstituteCommunication, Conflict, Connection, Criticism, Marriage Health, Reconnecting

Human beings really, really hate to lose. In economics, they call this concept loss aversion.

Research shows that people feel worse about losing $10 than we feel good about finding $10 because we actually experience losses more intensely than we do gains. 

In other words, we tend to focus more on negative emotions and setbacks more than we do on positive emotions or advancement.

What does this have to do with marriage, you ask?


The authors of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes put it this way:

“Loss aversion is messing with your marriage. When loss aversion kicks in, you’re liable to stay up all night arguing because you don’t want to lose a fight. You’ll refuse to compromise because it means giving up what you want. You won’t apologize because you don’t want to lose face. And you’ll fail to appreciate the good stuff that’s right in front of you because all you can think about is how much more fun married life used to be.” –Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson

Does this sound familiar?

Consider this: Losses cause us to experience feelings of hurt about twice as much as gains make us feel good. 

So it kind of makes sense that in marriage, to offset one critical comment made to your spouse, research shows it takes at least five positive interactions. 

Cruel words and ugly comments affect us more than compliments and encouragement.

That’s what researchers have found.

But we also know this is true because of life experience. 

When we are children, most of us at one time or another are the recipient of someone’s unkind words. Maybe they come from an exhausted parent, or a teacher having a bad day, or the neighborhood bully, or even an angry sibling or friend. 

But for many of us, those unkind words roll around in the back of our minds for years, decades even. We tend to hang onto those negative comments far longer than all the positive things people say to us.

Does that sound familiar?

Let’s get back to marriage.

Unkind, snarky, sarcastic, or even careless words spoken to each other can hurt deeply. And the feelings of loss experienced in that interaction may take time to overcome.

So when you and your spouse have had some kind of “falling out” with one another, you can and should try to figure out what went wrong and apologize. But psychologically speaking, that’s just not enough.

The fact is, you both need to experience many more good feelings from positive comments and interactions to balance the negative feelings from that one nasty exchange.

Because that’s how we are wired. 

Dr. John Gottman’s Love Bank model illustrates this. Gottman explains how to make deposits in your spouse’s emotional love bank, and why this is important.

“Make deposits by creating and building on positive moments with your partner. Emotional savings will serve as a cushion when times get rough.”  -John Gottman

And if you get into overdraft territory, the relationship may be in trouble.

Does this sound like work? Well, significant relationships require a certain amount of work. They just do. 

But we are not talking about grand gestures here. Filling your spouse’s love bank is really much more simple than that. Here’s Dr. Gottman again:

“Real life romance is fueled by a far more humdrum approach to staying connected. It is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

It’s little things like paying attention when your spouse is talking, telling them how much you appreciate them, and saying thank you when they wash the dishes or put gas in the car. 

When spouses make a habit of focusing on the positive, and treating one another with kindness, they keep each other’s love banks full and avoid storing up negative feelings.

That’s a win-win for your marriage.

And nobody likes to lose.

Marriage Dynamics Institute helps couples win at marriage. Learn more about Dynamic Marriage and United marriage courses. Find out how to offer marriage courses in your church and community. And if your marriage is already in the red, the A New Beginning workshop for marriages in crisis can help you turn things around.

About the Author

Marriage Dynamics Institute

Marriage Dynamics Institute (MDI) wants to cultivate healthy families, churches, and communities by helping create marriages full of joy, meaning, and purpose. Having served more than 75,000 couples since 1994, MDI offers workshops and seminars for marriages at every stage, including those in crisis.