I have a not-so-secret confession to make: I am terrible at ending relationships, even when I know they are bad for me.
I’m not just talking about personal ones. This includes professional ones as well. For a long time, I was in deep denial over this.
I reasoned that I was just a forgiving person, one of those types that gave people “another chance.” Indeed, it even became a source of pride for me. However, when I looked at the results, the proof was in the pudding: these bad relationships were hurting me and affecting those around me.
The only comfort that I took is that I was far from alone. Ask anyone if they know at least one person who is stuck in a bad relationship that they know is not good for them and chances are, they’ll be able to name more than one. (In some cases, it may even be themselves.)
However, the reason why still eluded me.
Since I knew I wasn’t alone, I decided to ask those who were in the same boat as me why they continued in these sorts of relationships—and I heard some interesting results.
While the most popular answer was because I love them, the second most common was because I spent a lot of time in them and/or I have invested so much in this relationship or business. It struck me that the problem I and a lot of other people had revolved around the second reason: we were victims of the sunk-cost fallacy.
While the term sunk-cost is often used in economics, it is applicable to other things as well. Indeed, The Skeptic’s Dictionary has an entire entry devoted to it.
Simply put, it happens when we make am investment in something—time, love or money—and we tell ourselves that we cannot stop because everything we invested previously will be lost. On the surface, it sounds surprisingly easy to recognize this and remove ourselves, but the reality is that it isn’t, especially when it comes to personal relationships.
The truth is, I want to believe that more time, more love or more understanding will turn a failing relationship around. Just as it was hard for me to see the value of my retirement account fall every quarter during the recession of 2008, it is hard to come to terms that sometimes my very best efforts count for naught.
For example, I recently cut ties with a friend. As is often the case with these things, a lot of things were said, but the one that stung the most was in an exchange over email with him asking the question, “So, you’re just giving up on our friendship after all these years?”
The truth was, yes, I was giving up.
I had tried unsuccessfully for a long time to keep a dead relationship going, and things were going nowhere. (In fact, they had gotten worse.) Still, even though I knew that logically, I was making the best choice, it still hurt like hell to feel the stigma of giving up.
I’m hardly alone. In some cases, it takes the help of a professional to realize that we are in this trap. For those who think they might be, one good way to determine if we are or not is to write down the costs: time, money, emotional woes, and then list the benefits of continuing the relationship. If the first list is far longer than the second and especially if the second list is blank, that could be a clear sign.
While it is ultimately up to each individual to decide whether or not to stay in a relationship, I will share that as the daughter of a compulsive gambler, I’ve learned that seldom do we ever get back what we invest when all the signs are pointing to us losing.
This is true both at the card table and at the relationship table.
I would never discount the sorrow of losing something, but sometimes it’s better to declare bankruptcy, which can enable us to move forward. Had I known this sooner, it would have been for the better.
Still, the best thing is it’s really never too late. Instead of focusing on what was lost, focus instead on the possible future gains which are waiting for us.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman