Why most people stay in unhappy relationships

We enter new romantic relationships with a sense of wonder, excitement and a healthy dollop of trepidation. Sometimes the relationship works out and you stay together, and sometimes it flops and you break-up. But why do some people stay in an unhappy relationship, one which brings both partners far greater misery than benefit? It could be because of the sunk cost fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy

Let me explain this fallacy by talking you through Hal Arkes and Catherine Blumer’s 1985 experiment. These researchers asked their participants to imagine that they had spent $100 on a ski trip. A short while later the participants were asked to imagine that they then bought an even better ski trip for only $50.

Then, the participants learned that both ski trips were at the same time and in different countries. Knowing that they could only choose one trip, more than half of the participants chose to go for the $100 trip. They chose this even though they were aware that it didn’t promise to be as good at the $50 trip.

Why did they choose it? Because of the loss that they would encounter seemed greater for the $100 trip. They would have sunk $100 as opposed to only sinking $50.

The sunk cost fallacy points out that many of our decisions on the future are based more on how much time, effort or money we would lose; rather than on how good of a decision it is for our lives. In the above example, it would be a better life decision to go on the trip which we knew to be a better trip. But we often focus on what we would lose (in this case the money) rather than what we would gain.

We can see this playing out in numerous ways in our lives. For example, I had a friend who studied a subject at university for three years. Over this time she realised that this didn’t give her any of the joy and meaning that she had thought it would bring. But then she considered the sunk costs, all the time and money spent on this career decision. In the end, she decided to continue in this line of work for the rest of her life. Ultimately dedicating another 30 or so years to something she resented, in order to avoid feeling that she had wasted three years of studying.  

How does the sunk cost fallacy play out in relationships?

The sunk cost fallacy is a possible reason why many people choose to stay in an unhappy relationship. Let’s say, a couple has been together for two years. And things have been really rough for the majority of the relationship bringing both of them more frustration and heartache than joy and meaning.  

They might decide to stay together for a number of valid and varying reasons. However, if the main reason that they stay together is that they don’t want to feel like they have wasted two years of their lives. Then they might be falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sticking it out. The point that I’m getting at here is not to stay only because of the losses that you think will occur if you leave. If you are staying for the sole reason of having sunk a lot of your time into the relationship, consider how many more years you will sink into the relationship by continuing to stay.

Staying in an unhappy relationship because you truly believe that it will get better and is worth saving is very different from staying in an unhappy relationship with no foreseeable improvement purely because you’ve sunk time into it. 

If you can identify with this situation then you have some choices to consider; you can continue to remain in the unhappy relationship as it is, you can break-up or you could work together on changing the relationship to one which would benefit you both more. There isn’t necessarily a correct answer here and what is right for one couple may not work for another. What I can recommend is working with a therapist to figure out what is best for you and your partner.

I know matters of the heart are anything but simple and life is messy, but take a moment to reflect and see if you, or anyone you know, are falling prey to sunk cost fallacy?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, SW6
Written by Donna Mitchell, MA
London, SW6

I am a psychologist working with individuals and couples. Most of the therapy that I provide is online and I do see some in-person clients in Fulham, London.

Most of the issues that I work with include self-confidence; anxiety; relationship difficulties and anyone looking for some extra support to help you thrive.

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