Jana Hocking on Sunk Cost Fallacy relationships and why she’d rather be single

I’m going to share an unpopular but true fact: we all know someone who has invested way too many years in a relationship that is dead.

Perhaps it’s your best friend, a parent, a work mate. But every day you’re hearing about some new fight they’ve had with their partner, and it sounds bloody horrible.

Heck, I’ve done it.

I once stayed with a guy for an extra year simply because I adored his dog and our cute little apartment. Was I thriving in the relationship? Nope. Were we a great match? Absolutely not, we couldn’t have been more opposite.

I found myself dropping weight rapidly because of stress, and I look back on that year with regret. My career suffered for it and I was far from healthy. But back then I felt like I had put in too much time and effort to simply quit.

I look at friends who are still in a similar situation to what I was and all I can think is LEAVE.

But they don’t. They keep on plodding down that dud relationship highway, occasionally experiencing a high – like a nice holiday where they both threw down their swords, or a romantic dinner. But a week or perhaps a month later they are back to their same patterns.

Why? Because they’re a bad match. The relationship is already dead, they just keep trying to revive it.

They feel like they’ve spent so many years working on their relationship that they fear quitting it now would be a waste. I’ve got one friend who constantly moans, “I’ve spent so much time working on our relationship and I would hate to think it was all for nothing. What will I have if I leave?”

Happiness. That’s what you will have. Oh, and a lot less misery.

I’ve never really been able to put a name to this dilemma, but this week as I was stomping around Centennial Park on my ‘hot girl walk’ and I came across a podcast that went deep into this exact problem.

It’s called Do You F*cking Mind hosted by Neuroscientist Alexis Fernandez-Preiksa and she was discussing something called “Sunk Cost Fallacy” which sounds a little boring, but trust me it hits hard.

Basically, Sunk Cost Fallacy is the phenomenon where someone is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.

For example, someone staying in a job that pays well, despite being miserable. Or someone keeping their business open even though their service is no longer profitable.

Or what I’m noticing a lot lately among friends, staying in a long-term relationship because you think people will judge you if you leave.

Well as someone who has made the scary jump and left a relationship despite the societal pressure to stay partnered up can I just say: it is worth it.

Watching couples (from my single point of view) has given me a new perspective that’s allowed me to feel mighty happy about my current status. I watch partners tear each other down, ignore each other, fight constantly and treat each other like muck.

And don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of couples who are really a match made in heaven – and that’s what I’m holding out for. But these couples who stay together because they’ve got kids, or because it would be too hard to divide assets etc just feel like they are settling for a miserable life.

Podcast host Alexis gave the best advice for people in this kind of situation saying:

“You can’t quit because people are going to think the worst of you. Don’t flatter yourself, no one is thinking about you, they are thinking about themselves. They’re thinking you are judging them.”

She further explained that staying in a Sunk Cost Fallacy relationship “makes you act against your best interest. You are doing things that are not going to benefit your mental health, your overall happiness … and most importantly your future. You’re stuck in the loss and you’re making it bigger.”

But here was her biggest Oprah Ahh-haa moment: “You’re also cockblocking yourself from anything that is going to be in direct conflict with what you’re staying in. Sure, you’ve spent the last ten years being miserable in a relationship, but what if you could spend the next ten in a happy one. Or even, in a happily single situation.”

I know what I would be picking, in fact I did! And yet so many people choose to stay in a tedious situation … why … because they feel like they’ve sunk too many years in a relationship to walk away. It’s madness when you actually think about it.

So do what I did and sit down and write a list of pros and cons. If the cons are far outweighing the pros, then I would start making an exit plan.

And as a child of divorced parents, can I also say that honestly, honestly, you are doing them a favour by leaving an unhappy marriage. Being brought up in a home full of fights and discomfort is far more disruptive than seeing two parents thriving in happier situations.

Food for thought …

Jana Hocking is a columnist and collector of kind-of-boyfriends | @jana_hocking

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