Breaking Up is Hard to Do (After You’ve Invested in Someone)

Bad news: the sunk cost effect applies to relationships.

12.05.16
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I remember crying into my ex-boyfriend’s shoulder a few years ago on Golden Gate Avenue. We were between apartment viewings — it was to be our first — and instead of feeling elated about our cohabiting future, I felt bone shakingly nervous. Perhaps worse, I felt terrified that my nerves meant something ominous. We’d spent the morning walking through cramped studio apartments as agents told us about utilities and the knot in my stomach told me I better be sure about this dude. Because as casual as I was and am about living with a significant other, I also inherently knew and know how much harder it would be to leave once I did. Signing a lease felt a little like signing a marriage license.

Ultimately it was fine! We lived together for three fun and love-filled years that I don’t regret. But I will say this: We did not break up until after I’d moved across the country for a new job. Until after I’d broken the contract of a shared home and freed us to make a decision in an emotional vacuum, rather than one mired in practical trappings. Who knows how things might have shaken out had I stayed?

A new study in Current Psychology says I might have been onto something on that teary afternoon. “[N]ew research reveals a fascinating truth about what people actually do once they’re invested in a romantic relationship,” reported Well + Good. “Dubbed the ‘sunk cost effect,’ psychologists have found that people are reluctant to give up the time, money and effort they’ve invested…This effect causes a ‘continuous investment in that option, despite not being the best decision.’ In other words, they’ll settle.”

The conclusion was drawn on hypotheticals — about a thousand people answered questions around whether they’d be likely to make a relationship work after different investments of varying seriousness — but I wonder how many people are surprised by this or have experienced it themselves. I’m not and I have. Remember the book everyone was talking about a few years ago, The Defining Decade? Meg Jay, the clinical psychologist who wrote it, urged couples in their twenties to more seriously consider their future before moving in together.

“I am not for or against living together,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Times. “But I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake.”

The Current Psychology research is about more than cohabiting. It’s about investment in general. It’s about settling and why we do it. The findings are an important, if kind of obvious, reminder that commitments in relationships should be carefully considered. That following our hearts and thinking less, as every RomCom so desperately wants us to do, can set us up for less-than-romantic situations. I mean, I’m a future-oriented basket case by nature, but it’s nice to hear some of my neuroses weren’t in vain.

Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post via Getty Images. 

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