Sometimes you shouldn’t quit while you’re ahead. You should quit when you’re very far behind.
Why do we stay in bad relationships? There are lots of reasons, of course. It could be that the drama is terrible but the sex is the best. Or the sex is terrible, but he does all your home improvement chores and you have no idea how you could ever hang a curtain without him. Or it’s “for the kids.” “For the mortgage.” Or some other reason that’s barely better than an excuse.
Often we hang on, hoping and hoping that things will get better, but they just keep on getting worse.
Knowing when to pull the plug is a skill that’s halfway between common sense and magic. Because you’ll almost never be completely sure that you’re doing the right thing.
Allow me to introduce you to a new concept in relationship economics: sunk cost. Sunk cost refers to the resources that you’ve put into an investment. The greater the costs that you’ve sunk, the more you’ll feel like you should hold on to that investment, no matter how badly it’s tanking.
We’re all prone to the fallacy of sunk costs. If you read one-third of a very long book that you hate, you feel like you should soldier on and read the other two-thirds, even though it’s boring you to tears. In the same amount of time it took you to finish Ulysses after you realized what a bore it was, you could have read three other books you actually enjoyed . But no. You just have to get all the way to the end, from wandering through Dublin to eating kidneys that taste vaguely of piss, through every unremarkable thing accomplished by Leopold Bloom. (To be fair, the last chapter might be the best.)
Also, you’ll probably tell all your friends that James Joyce is a genius. Because you already spent a non-negligible percentage of your entire lifespan reading his doorstopper of a book. That wasn’t just a huge waste of time… was it?
With the fallacy of sunk costs, you keep on hoping and praying that some kind of big pay-out is eventually going to justify your sunk resources. So you plough through to the end of Ulysses, hoping you’ll feel very intelligent by the end. You stay in that bad relationship, because if only things get better, and you stay together forever, then you’ll be one of the couples who made it. It’s the same instinct that makes it harder and harder to stop putting coins into the one-armed bandit, the more coins you lost, because a big payout must be just around the corner… right?
Sometimes, the only thing you can do is wave goodbye to the love you wasted, the time you wasted reading a long boring book, or the euros you sank into the Greek economy. That love, time, and money is gone. But you can choose not to lose your future resources in the same place.
Being aware of the fallacy of sunk cost is one thing. Putting it into practice is another thing altogether. Commitment and the time you’ve spent building a relationship are not bullshit. The hope that you can keep on improving your relationship is also not bullshit. Those things really do count for something. But when you feel that things aren’t right, you need to take a long, hard look at your love portfolio. Are you hanging on to your investment because this relationship has a future? Or is it just because you’ve already invested so much?