The Scaries: On the Fear of Letting Go

‘Sunk cost’ love is when you repeatedly invest in a dead-end relationship. It’s time to move past that fear reflex.

Words by Hollie April. Illustration by Hannah Kirchen.

Sometimes, a relationship that starts off great takes a turn for the worse. The little things get harder, communication falls flat, and broader incompatibilities are revealed. Then, there is a decision to be made. Walk away, or stay to fix the issues and try to patch things up?

For people who have already invested a lot in a relationship, it can be tempting to overlook problems, and continue to pour love into a partnership that offers very little in return. “’Sunk cost’ theory is an economics term that perfectly describes repeatedly investing in a dead-end relationship,” says Susan Winter, relationship expert and author. 

“When applied to romance, I call it the ‘degenerate gambler syndrome,’” she expands. “You know, the gambler who keeps putting more money into a losing hand because they’ve already invested so much, they dare not leave the table without recouping their losses.” And just like the unlucky gambler on a losing streak, people in this situation sometimes feel that walking away from their relationship isn’t an option, so they stay and try to fix it instead. “The partner who feels depleted by their emotional investment is locked in place by shame,” explains Winter. 

If you have ever taken a few weeks or months too long to break up with someone who was wrong for you, perhaps this sounds a little familiar. You may have found yourself saying something like, ‘I can’t give up now, I’ve put so much time and effort in!’ After all, we all like to win, and we all feel good when our gambles pay off. However big or low the stakes, most of us get a great feeling when we invest a resource — be it time, energy, or money — in something which turns out to go our way. Conversely, when an investment doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, it can leave a sour taste. 

In this ‘sunk cost’ mindset, a person might be more likely to continue with behavior patterns which offer little joy and value, simply because they have previously invested in them. Instead of evaluating the merits of continuing on the same path with a clear head, they allow the past to cloud their judgment. And in dating, this could mean perpetuating an unrewarding dynamic, and throwing good time and energy after bad. Susan Trombetti, matchmaker and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking, says that she sees this theme a lot in her work. 

“People [who] have invested years in an unhappy marriage or relationship are reluctant to leave,” she says. In such situations, many of us are inclined to listen to our hearts over our heads, letting our emotions win out. “If you were thinking logically such as ‘I invested so much,’ you will see that you will be investing much more without the likelihood of happiness or anything changing,” says Trombetti. And it’s not just in dating and relationships that we see this theme. It could also crop up at work, or in personal projects. “Some people, organizations, jobs, or situations run patterns that are energetic sinkholes,” says Felicity Morse, confidence coach and author. “No matter how much you feed them, they will never be full.”

Does that person make you feel happy, wanted, and valued?”

Hollie April

So, is it ever possible to escape this trap of ploughing more resources into something that isn’t working? Trombetti points out that some people are fast to invest a lot into new relationships, which can exacerbate this issue. “Everyone is on their best behavior when you first start dating them,” she says. Because of this, she advocates for investing more slowly to begin with, to make sure that the new partner is well worth the time and energy. “So many people go exclusive way too soon in a series of short stint relationships,” she says, explaining that this can leave them off the market when the right person comes along.

But for people who are already in deep and really want to give a struggling relationship one last shot before calling it a day, setting a firm check-in date could be helpful. So, if something isn’t right with a relationship, you can decide upon what must change by that date in order to stay and keep trying. This provides a boundary; a firm statement about how you will allow yourself to be treated, and what you are willing to withstand. And if that date comes around and nothing is any better, you should avoid pushing your deadline for change further and further back. Boundaries only work when they are enforced, and when you break your own boundaries, you are giving other people license to continue to fail to meet your needs, with no real consequence. To avoid applying a ‘sunk cost’ way of thinking to a romantic relationship, it is important to consider whether it is valuable in and of itself right now, regardless of the effort already invested. For example, does the person make you feel happy, wanted, and valued? 

Boundaries only work when they are enforced.”

Hollie April

Above all, being kind to ourselves is important, and forgiving ourselves for pouring time and energy into something that winds up not working out is a part of that. “It is OK to have spent energy in a place that didn’t reward you,” says Morse. She points out that there is no shame in spending this energy. It is critical to remember that just because a person or situation is not able to give you what you need, this does not mean that you are not worthy of receiving those things. 

“If all you learned is how to walk away, then that was what you were there for, and there is no sunk cost, but rather a valuable experience,” she says. Plus, breaking away from something that isn’t working could mean more time to focus on personal goals. “With the energy you no longer need to expend in a place it isn’t serving anyone, you can build yourself up,” Morse adds. “Anything that does not enable you to share your worth with the world is not for you.”

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