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Lessons From the End of a Marriage

A “How to Thrive” Guide After Divorce

Are You Falling For the Sunk Cost Fallacy in Your Relationship?

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I love learning about how our brains operate and how they often fool us. We tend to think of ourselves as rational creatures when the reality is often anything but. There are many fallacies that we fall prey to, but there is one in particular that plays a dominant role in relationships.

The sunk cost fallacy.

This fallacy relates to costs (financial, time, energy) that have already been invested and cannot be recovered. What has occurred is done. Over. It should not have any bearing on our decision going forward.

And yet it often does.

A non-relationship example of the sunk cost fallacy would be the money paid up front for a monthly membership to a class. You go to two classes and decide you hate the course and find the instructor particularly grating. If you were paying per class, you obviously would simply stop going. However, because you paid up front, you view the money as wasted if you do not attend, so you continue to show up, hating every minute.

Pretty silly, huh? I mean, the money is gone regardless of if you turn up at the class or use that time to perfect your soap whittling skills (something which I assume is preferable to the class in question). You would be best served by writing off the money spent and using your time for something beneficial. It may not feel like money well spent, but at least it would be time well spent. And both have value.

In a relationship, the sunk cost fallacy can keep people together even when they may be better apart. The years (or even weeks or months) of time and emotional investment have already occurred and cannot be recovered. As such, they should not be considered in the decision of whether or not to continue the relationship. Moving forward because of sunk costs won’t make you happier. Energy invested in the past doesn’t promise a return in the future. When deciding if a relationship should continue, look at the value it brings to the present and the predicted value in the future, not the investments already made. Those costs are already sunk. Sinking more ships won’t make the first ones rise.

What has passed, is past.

And the past shouldn’t dictate your future.

So, if the relationship still has an intact hull, let it sail on its own merits.

If the hull is breached beyond repair, let it sink.

And then whittle that block of soap into a sculpture:)

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22 thoughts on “Are You Falling For the Sunk Cost Fallacy in Your Relationship?

  1. As someone who stayed in a dead relationship for 9 years, I relate fully. I guess I have a high threshold for nonsense since it took me so long to finally get out. From my vantage point now, I don’t know how I didn’t drown years ago… Thank you for your insight.

  2. I’ve been looking for this term for a long time. Thanks for putting it up.

    It’s hard to separate from the perceived value. Because I’ve sunk so much cost into something, I value it better than another thing. Even if the other thing is really better for me. It’s maddening that our brains work this way.

    Luckily, when I was stuck in a relationship due to this mental fallacy, someone came along and explained the concept to me like in your blog post above. Great entry.

    1. Our brains are pretty interesting creatures, aren’t they? I find it crazy that just being aware of a fallacy isn’t always enough to avoid it. Glad you saw through your brain’s machinations:) Thanks for the support!

  3. Interesting analogy. What I battled was twofold – children (we have 6) and indecisiveness (whether we were in fact sinking, sailing in choppy water or already sunk). In hindsight, there is far more clarity than when I was going through the storm. As everyone knows when in the throes of relationship challenges and divorce, things can be as clear as mud. Looking back now I realize we were sunk, but being the-ever-optimist, I couldn’t accept it (or see it) then.

  4. Thank you so much! Just confirms I’m on the right path… honestly, this was partly why I waited so long. She kept cheating and lying, but… we’ve been together 21 years.

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