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

Bad news: the sunk cost effect applies to relationships.


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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  • gashgoldvermillion

    I wrote something similar to this on the divorce piece a few weeks back, but – I think it can also be really difficult and even humiliating to end a relationship ‘just because’ it’s not right.

    Along with sunk cost, the popular narrative tells us that ending a long term relationship should only come after: a) someone cheats or b) you meet someone else.

    I think breaking up to be single, especially when the relationship was for all intents and purposes a pretty good one, is really hard and often very brave. Especially for women. I feel like men have an easier time with this, for some reason.

    • Queenoftherodeo

      Thank you for this comment. This year, I ended things with a short-term boyfriend and then a boy I was dating because it didn’t feel right. It was hard, I was upset. And each time, the immediate response was ‘have you met someone else?’ I broke up to be single so I was insulted at the time but this point of view is helpful to me.Thanks for making me feel like a brave lady.

      • _lauristia

        I also broke up with my ex because I wanted to be single.

    • Haley Nahman

      Yes ending things for more nebulous reasons was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. In hindsight the incredible anxiety wasn’t totally founded, but there is such a stigma around it.

  • I was a few months away from moving in with my boyfriend of 9 years off and on, and dreading the prospect of the move (NYC apartment hunting is agony). I’d give that relationship a B+, and thankfully I realized that the sunk cost of our relationship (time, mostly) wasn’t worth settling for so I broke up with him.

    • Haley Nahman

      The finality of this comment was jarring and satisfying. Happy for you

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      Good for you. Just my experience, but my friends who were in B/B+ relationships and decided to let the relationship keep trucking along ended up in D-/F marriages, after a few years, and ended up in some pretty acrimonious divorces/split-ups.

      • Thank you. I agree… I could see the future and I knew I would be even less happy than I was. I knew I was capable of feeling more love in a relationship and wasn’t willing to give up on the hope of finding it. Ending it was one of the very hardest decision I ever made but I’ve never regretted it. I did, however cry buckets at the prospect of never seeing his family again.

        Reflecting back, 9 years was a very long time for the relationship to never rise above a “B+”. Too long. I don’t have any illusions about the hard work necessary in a long term relationships, but there’s a limit to how much one should settle for in order to settle down.

  • “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.”

    HALEY speaking directly to my soul

    • Haley Nahman

      <3 <3 <3

  • Cassandra

    Fuck. And this is why I’m in a marriage I want to escape from. Shit just forbid real. My husband and I started living together almost immediately when we met. Consequently, I’ve felt so tied to him the entire relationship, even after it became clear that we want totally different things from life and have completely different views about almost everything. Now we have a newborn baby girl, and I’m laying her watching her sleep, wishing it could just be the two of us forever.

  • Rosie

    Love this. I’ve gained a lot of perspective after my boyfriend of 4 years broke up with me earlier this year — there wasn’t anything necessarily “wrong” with our relationship, it was loving and loyal and comfortable, but it just wasn’t right. And, like what happened with you, it took me moving 5 states away for a new job for him to break up with me… But I’m glad it happened, and I’m honestly proud of him for being true to his feelings instead of “settling” for something that would have more than likely crumbled in the future anyway (probably after blindly getting married because it would have seemed like the next logical step). So, I thank him for setting us free — and after 8 months and one short-lived Bumble fling, I’m loving being single for the first time in half a freaking decade.

    So, again, I love this piece and I love this community and I love you all !!

    • Haley Nahman

      Love this and you back!

    • Sarah

      How did he tell you that he knew it “just wasn’t right”? Like, how did you/he know that it would probably crumble in the future? I am genuinely curious for an example… I posted my situation in these comments just today, and it makes me anxious to think that maybe this article and your situation could be mine/my boyfriend’s as well, but how does one know what the difference is between “loving and loyal and comfortable” VS “a true or ‘meant to be’ love” ?

      • Rosie

        Sarah! Hi! I apologize for just now seeing this (I’m rly bad at Disqus). To be honest, the situation with my ex is a tricky one — the reason he ended our relationship was because he was (and still is, tbh) going through some sort of internal crisis that he decided he needed to deal with on his own. He was in therapy for a short time last year, but hasn’t been back… I wish he would give it another shot, because he still seems so lost (I actually met up with him last weekend for the first time since we broke up, and it was very clear to me that he’s still struggling a lot). But, him breaking up with me — although he reiterates every time we talk that it had nothing to do with me — allowed me to take a step back and look at our relationship. It made me realize that even though I will honestly always love and care about him and he is such a good person, I don’t think we are meant to be together for the long-haul. And that is okay. I’m just thankful that we’re still capable of having a meaningful friendship, because it would kill me if we didn’t.

        I’m not sure what your situation is like — I read your other post, and it reminds me of my boyfriend in college, tbh. We did long distance for the entirety of our 2 year relationship and it was a lottt of energy… but he was also pretty emotionally abusive so it was an easy decision for me to end things when I got to a breaking point. This doesn’t really sound like your situation though, so I wonder if you think you’d be able to have an open conversation with him about how you’re feeling? If you think that your relationship is worth continuing to pursue, and there is a lot of love and trust and promise for the future there, I’d recommend talking to him about it. It might make the answer easy… If he’s receptive to talking about it, that’s great — if not, that’s not great. Oof I feel like I’m really rambling now lol but I wish you both the very best!! And remember: *ALWAYS* think of your feelings first. You have to do what’s best for you, even if that means (unintentionally) hurting someone you love. Remember that! Xo

  • Summer

    Holy heck– I’m struggling to fight the ‘sunk cost’ for a relationship that’s clearly done after a month and a half!! But it’s so much in my nature to think “well maybe if I did this or just waited or something it’ll all be better”… Thank you for this because I really would rather be alone than with someone who I’m settling for.

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      Sorry about the breakup, but truly – don’t look back. It ended for a reason; if you can’t see the reason now, you will in time. In the meantime, take care of yourself. 🙂

  • Rose

    I’m making plans to move in with my partner when his lease is up next year, and I share some of the same sentiments. Thankfully, we’ve been talking about it for months, and it won’t happen for another four, so I feel like it’s a lot of time to hash out the details. I have never lived with someone without having my own space to retreat to, if needed, though, so it’s scary. Despite the fact that it’s more practical (especially financially in NYC) for us to combine our living situation, especially since I basically live at his place already (and just pay rent on a place I am otherwise never out, how very new york of me).

  • Sarah

    Wow, I definitely feel this. I am in college and have been with my significant other on + off (due to his traveling) for almost 2 years. I recently used the “L” word, and it felt right, because he is so comfortable to me, and we are very compatible. Yet, sometimes I wonder/worry if I am only trying to make it work because it IS so comfortable and I have put so much emotional energy into it with all of his absences… YET I HATE TO ADMIT THAT IT IS A POSSIBILITY. This article was very good, but it made me very anxious. ha. Even though I think I know all about life, I am still so young and it makes me feel skeptical about love in general.

    • Fran

      Ugh I’m in the same situation… we are compatible and have so much fun together but I feel like I’ve invested so much energy in making it work, I’m full of doubts if I should continue… no advice here, just wanted to let you know you’re not alone! Good luck for us and let’s hope we make the best decisions for our future

      • Haley Nahman

        Been there so hard!! I think doubts exist on a spectrum — there can be doubts about whether love can last forever or whether things will stay the same or work out ultimately, but doubts about whether you even want to be with someone sit heavier and I think ought to be heeded if they feel fundamental and don’t go away even after looking at them from every perspective and trying to ignore them. Those are the ones that will seem incredibly obvious to you once you finally act on them and can look at them from some distance. But doing that is very very hard to do when you love someone. It’s like signing up for a spell of loneliness and heartbreak.

        • Fran

          You nailed it perfectly. I’ve been trying to make the *definitive decision* but keep backing down and deciding it’s “not the moment to break up”, because we’re still happy anyway so it must not be 100% wrong, right? I mean it’s still better than lonely nights and cold feet. Ugh happiness really is a warm gun…

          • Paola

            Omg I read this post just on the right time. Less than month and a Half my boyfriend of over 8 years broke with me because he felt we both had issues se had to solve separately. Our relationship had had its ups and down but when I came back home after studying a semester in france I had started feeling insatisfied. Not with the relationship but with myself, the time spent away showed me so much I love being by myself and travelling solo and just proving I exist without being defined by someone else. So when i came back our dynamic changed because I was focusing too much on what I wanted to do, and though I tried hard not to be selfish and start thinking as a couple, I didn’t feel right, but I was too scared to speak up because of the amount of time and effort I have had invested on the relationship. However, he did notice the changes and started feeling horrible (he said that), and ultimately leading him to tale the decision to broke up with me. I have been feeling miserable the last weeks but reading this post reminded me of that unsettling feeling I had too, so now I’m feeling so much better about it all. Maybe we will meet at some other point of our lives when we have experienced it all and we have the same goals… I don’t now.

          • Haley Nahman

            Ha oh man, Fran. You sound so much like me! I’d always say to myself “Well, if I don’t want to break up, that must mean it’s not the right decision. I’m just not ready.” I did that for years! Because I was happy and loved him! But just couldn’t figure out what I wanted. Not trying to scare you, though, because I’m sure there are plenty of women who felt like that way, didn’t end things, and are so happy with that decision. It will def come down to how long you can sit with your feelings before they disperse or you just can’t deal anymore. It’s so so personal. Good luck, thinking of you!

  • alice

    This speaks up to me so much though it’s a atemporal subject… been struggling with a relationship “off and on” as well and relunctantly to make a decisive conclusion for my very first real love and short time boyfriend (compared to other almost decade relationships, but comparing is the thief of joy right)….
    I love this community because you can learn and observe so much from the comments and other peoples experiences…
    Hope i will have the courage to do ‘what feels right ‘ and find the appropriate moment for that…
    “Note that every ending comes a new beginning” namaste

  • matha

    I really
    thank maa sunlight for helping bring back my love. The man I love most in my
    life” I really can’t live without him though I most lost him once and all
    effort trying to get him back was lost I really with the help of maa sunlight I
    was able to get him back and break the black magic another lady used on him so
    no one can have him but her. I really appreciate all her efforts because they
    were not been put to waste. She is indeed a great mother of love…and my man,
    was already about to get married to the strange one month to their wedding.
    everything happens like a dream I never wish to wakeup from but before I knew
    their relationship spoilt and he came back to me begging for forgiveness and
    marry him. I’m really happy getting married to a man I love. a man that
    understands me, and respect me, for a woman that I am. Pls readers join me in
    giving maa osa sunlight praise and if
    you have problems in your relationship pls contact maa sunlight directly on her
    email ( Sunlightmata @gmail. com ) and pls be obedient to follow her instructions
    so she can help you bring/ restore your falling relationship. She is a mother
    of love and full of understanding maa sunlight, I really thank you from the
    bottom of my heart thank you mother for everything. I now have to live a life
    happily ever after it was all by your grace thanks to you maa.