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Interact, Don't Transact, with Your Spouse

Marriage is not a business transaction.

If you want a marriage that supports you and your spouse as individuals while also enhancing your relationship, you need to know about the difference between transacting and interacting with one another.

Too often couples are advised to create a transactional marriage—“You satisfy my need, I satisfy yours.” The notion of transaction comes from the business world where people do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation. For example, in marriage, a husband “helps” out with vacuuming the house and his wife “helps” out by taking out the trash. John Gottman, the well-known marriage expert, argues that this kind of unwritten agreement leads to partners keeping a mental running tally of who has done what for whom. This kind of unspoken contract fosters anger and resentment. Happy marriages are not about 50/50 transactions.

Here is a quick list of transactional thinking about marriage1:

  • What do I get?
  • If I win, you will lose
  • You must see my view
  • Results oriented
  • Quid pro quo (tit for tat)
  • Judgmental
  • Punishing
  • Blaming

A transaction between people is based on the idea of reciprocity, an idea which has been around for 200,000 years. You may feel a bit unsteady when someone gives you a present when it’s not your birthday or you haven’t won the marathon. In these cases, you start to wonder whether you are somehow indebted to them. Indebtedness is the basis of reciprocity. Reciprocity ensured collaboration between humans, “turning fragile individuals into strong and resourceful communities.”2

In business transactions, the focus is on “making the sale,” which is often a one-time sale. However, marriages are not “one-time” interactions—we have thousands of interactions over the course of the marriage. These thousands of interactions become a game of keeping score, of balancing the books. Give too little and you don’t satisfy your partner’s need increasing your indebtedness. A marriage based on indebtedness builds anger and resentment, as Gottman notes. In the end, either person may end up feeling that “I could have struck a better deal.”

In happy marriages, partners find a way to share tasks and feel good about their partner and their relationship. But there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to talk about interactions as a way to accomplish household tasks, make career decisions, decide about children, make sex work, etc.

I have spent my professional career and personal life with my husband working out that what happens in happy marriages is a process based on the idea that we each have individual wants and desires to flourish in life. At the same time, we honor each other's wishes and desires to flourish because of our love and commitment to each other. And we keep in our heads that as a couple, what we do has profound effects on each other—the coupleship of the marriage. Our interactions are about both our individual wishes and wants and the awareness of the impact our choices have on each other.

I settled on the concept of negotiating collaboratively as the process by which issues are identified, discussed, and resolved in a way that incorporates both spouses wishes and wants and cements the relationship. Here is an example of how negotiating collaboratively works:

The issue: Lucas and Sara had a disagreement about where Sara should park when she drove the car to the mall. Lucas did not want Sara to park in the parking garage, which was her preference. Here are the steps in the negotiation about where Sara will park when she goes to the mall.

Step 1: Approaching Your Partner: When you have something on your mind, give your partner a heads-up about what you want to talk about. It is important to give him or her time to think about his or her own thoughts about the issue. Set a time when it is convenient for you both to talk.

Step 2: Expressing What You Want: This is a disagreement about different preferences (wants or desires) that Lucas and Sara have about something that Sara is doing. When you have different preferences about how things should be done, the focus of your conversation should be to discover the concerns and interests each person has around the specific issue. In an open discussion about an issue:

  • Each of you wants to be able to express your perspective on how you see things.
  • Each of you should be able to explain why what you prefer to do is important to you.
  • Each of you should give the other person the opportunity to express his/her preference, without interruption.
  • Watch for hidden personal agendas you may have. If you are feeling anxious or angry, talk about it.

This step helped this couple see that they both had good reasons for how they saw things. Lucas was concerned about the car getting dented by other car doors, causing repair costs, because the parking spaces in the garage were so narrow. Sara wanted to find a convenient parking spot when she was running errands and getting to important engagements, like doctors’ appointments, on time.

Step 3: Making a Win-Win Action Plan: The best outcome of this kind of discussion is a win-win action plan that is responsive to the stated concerns. Here is the win-win solution Lucas and Sara achieved: Lucas will drive Sara into town when he is working from home. When she drives herself, she will park on the upper levels of the garage, where there are fewer cars, and take care to park in the middle of the space to decrease the risk of dents from other car doors.

I offer collaborative negotiation as the process by which issues are identified, discussed, and resolved in such a way that each partner feels honored and valued—supporting the coupleship for the long haul.

You can read more about collaborative negotiation in my Psychology Today post “The Right Way to Negotiate with Your Partner.


1. Tanner, Millie. “Is your marriage more transactional or relational?” Althea Counseling. December 20, 2016.…

2. Sandrini, Matt. “Don’t settle for transactional relationships.” P.S. I Love You. August 9, 2017.…