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Relationships – bad? Why stay?

Like keeping that old, worn out sweater, why do we suffer poor relationships? Or can they be saved? 4 tips

There is a phenomenon termed “loss-aversion” that causes us to be ultra- sensitive to losses. In 1979 psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman developed a successful behavioral model, called prospect theory, using the principles of loss aversion, to explain how people assess uncertainty. More recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have uncovered how loss aversion may work. (Russell A. Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, in

In short, it is built into our brain. That’s how we are wired.

So, what does that have to do with our unsatisfactory relationship?

Leaving a relationship

Here is Sip and Go Girl’s shortened story:

One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was trying to decide whether to officially end my marriage was knowing I invested nearly 15 years of my life into the relationship.  And was it all for naught?

I was scared of being back in the same lifestyle I had 15 years prior with nothing to show for it.

A couple of months ago I read a book called “Sway: the incredible pull of irrational behavior”.

My fave part of the book is when the authors discuss loss aversion.  That’s when we are afraid to end something because of the time or money we already put into it, “Two forces- commitment and aversion to loss- have a powerful effect on us.  When the two forces combine, it becomes that much harder to break free and do something different”.

Having read those words, I feel empowered. I guess I did have the courage to break free and do something different, despite what my mind kept telling me.

( 10 December 2012)

Giving the relationship a chance

James Sheridan of the News Sentinel wrote, “The impact of behavioral economics on relationships, particularly between married couples”. While citing research conducted by Szuchman and Anderson on the phenomenon of loss aversion in the field of behavioral economics, he commended Dr. Gottman for his insights into ways for vanquishing our cognitive demons. Our maladaptive human tendencies to allow loss-aversion and similar cognitive phenomena to chip away at our relationships are unavoidable. However, we do not have to accept the stress and tension that they create, or allow them to continue destroying our abilities to clearly see what truly matters to us”! Sheridan describes the cutting edge of relationship research, the scientifically proven models and methods of fighting loss-aversion identified independently by Dr. Gottman, Szuchman, and Anderson. (By: Ellie Lisitsa,  September 10, 2012)


Along with loss-aversion, Thaler introduced the “endowment effect,” and it explains our irrational tendency to overvalue something just because we own it. Or, as Thaler puts it, “goods [that] are included in the individual’s endowment will be more highly valued than those not held in the endowment, ceteris paribus.” (By SAM MCNERNEY,, The Gottman Institute)

Finding the right partner

These phenomena occur early on- in the romance before marriage.

Recent studies by social psychologists show that loss aversion also strongly influences our romantic decisions and our choice of partner. These studies indicate that rather than looking for particular traits that we hold important in a partner, we are trying to detect “deal breakers” during our search for a partner. Put differently, rather than searching for the “prince” in a potential partner we search for the assurance that there is no “frog” hiding there.

(Eyal Winter Ph.D.

How can we do better?
Inevitable arguing; when spouses know they’re repeating themselves and no progress is being made, 53 percent kept arguing anyway. Amazingly, 34 percent said they kept fighting even after they couldn’t remember what they were arguing about. And 34 percent also said they kept fighting “even after they knew they’re wrong.” The fear of losing ends up compounding long-term losses in marriage.

The key to avoiding loss aversion is recognizing your marriage is more valuable than the issue you are arguing about. But we forget this in the heat of the moment, when we’re obsessed with not wanting to lose.

Expert John Gottman reports arguments that aren’t going well after 3 minutes probably won’t be going any better after 3 hours, unless something changes. Loss aversion has probably already set in. Szuchman and Anderson, as well as Gottman, suggest the change should involve taking a “time-out.” 

Four Rules

First, either of you can call a time-out.

Second, the person calling the time-out has to set a time-in, never more than 24 hours later (even 20 to 30 minutes is often long enough). Time-outs aren’t for practicing your arguments. Instead, think about the good in your marriage, what “led to all that anger” and how you might come to a solution with love and respect.

Third The answer for the endowment effect comes in “reframing the question.” Instead of focusing on what you’re “losing,” consider what you’re gaining. Are you losing something sentimental (that old chair) or gaining a chance to buy something new and strengthen your marriage?

As to loss aversion, the “Status Quo Bias” we’re wired with, “to strongly prefer the known and familiar over the unknown and unfamiliar”, moving away from the status quo, while typically making us feel bad, must be done.

Fourth This solution is what Szuchman and Anderson call “active decision-making” — taking “an active role in the decisions that affect your life.” This includes consciously deciding to “reset the status quo to the present time.”

Active decision-making makes it easier to accept the new “normal,” which includes the joys of the relationship or any other new reality, with less stress, less sense of loss and fewer arguments.

Need help deciding- Stay or Go?

This is where Counseling on Demand can help.

We can help you with loss aversion so as to make that crucial decision.

If you decide to stay, your marriage will be stronger by avoiding the problems of loss aversion. Using time-outs, recognizing the problem of the endowment effect and making conscious decisions about life-changing events will reduce the risk of multiplying your losses in your marriage by excessive loss aversion. (As per Lisitsa, quoting Gottman)

If you decide to go, as in Sip and Go Girl’s story, we can guide you through that as well.

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I am the Founder and CEO of Counseling On Demand with a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy with over 25 years of experience in helping Individuals, Couples, Adolescents, and Families who struggle with a wide variety of Life's Challenges. I thus have developed an Array of Effective Counseling Tools and Evidenced-Based Interventions to help you towards Your Road to Better Mental Health and Wellness. You are Never Alone...I look forward to meeting with you or your family member soon!