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Why It’s So Hard to Leave an Unhappy Relationship

It’s all about how much time, effort, and resources you’ve already invested.

I bought a dress for work from a well-known designer brand. A belted sleeveless cream dress, it looked like a good investment for $240 (which was a lot for me to spend on one item on my salary). I wanted to get somewhere at work, and this dress could help me look the part, I believed. I took my measurements and selected the appropriate size and ordered it online.

When it arrived, I was disappointed. The fabric was stiff and uncomfortable, and the belt made it puff around my hips. The belt was also sewn on, and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to snip it away on such an expensive dress. When I looked online to return it, I realized it had been a final sale and I couldn’t.

I’d bought this dress for a specific reason. I’d had expectations about it, dreams. It was going to make me feel something. Push me to do something. Make me look and be a little better than I already was, but it’d disappointed me.

Instead of trying to sell it or give it away, I kept it. I even wore it every now and again, but each time I didn’t feel good in it. I didn’t like how the fabric felt against my skin or how it looked on me.

When the zipper stopped working, I even took it to a tailor to fix. I spent more money on a dress I didn’t even want. I just kept thinking I’d somehow recoup the loss, so it stayed in my closet for years.

Economists call this the “sunk-cost fallacy.We keep spending our money, time, and resources on things just because we’ve already put money, time, and resources into them. We don’t consider that the costs outweigh the benefits.

My relationship with my ex-husband was the equivalent of that $240 belted sleeveless cream dress.

My relationship with my ex-husband was the equivalent of that $240 belted sleeveless cream dress. Spending years as well as money, time, and resources on a relationship that wasn’t meant to be, one that I’d had a lot of expectations and dreams about that I hoped would someday be realized, a relationship that had ultimately disappointed me.

Before we dated, we spent months carefully approaching how we would even start. There was actually a six week period between the asking and the going on of our first date, and then once we began dating, we had months of rigid boundaries. I wanted us to have a therapist-approved healthyrelationship. We even went to couples therapy when we’d only been dating three months.

By the time we got engaged, we’d both sunk so much time, resources, and money into each other. We’d attended couples therapy, a couples support group, and several couples retreats. Our wedding was then an over $10,000 expense.

It’s no wonder that when things got rough, instead of cutting our losses, we kept investing more. We went to more couples therapy. We read books and followed the advice of relationship gurus. We bought material things too — new cars, two new homes — In the hopes of changing this ill-fitting dress of a relationship.

There are a lot of reasons why the sunk-cost fallacy appears in our personal relationships. We spent so much on the wedding...We’re married…We’ve been together ten years…We have kids…

The larger issue is that it’s hard to admit when we’ve made the wrong choice.

The larger issue is that it’s hard to admit when we’ve made the wrong choice. That’s painful, self-esteem striking. To avoid feeling that, we often try to overcompensate by persisting. We tell ourselves our relationship is going through a “rough patch.” We read books, attend therapy, commit to practicing the other’s love language.

We get stupidly stubborn and ignore that there’s little hope for our situation. You can’t get a dress that fits you well and looks good on you without taking it apart and re-sewing it. You may not even have enough fabric to work with to make that happen, so it’s often easier to just buy a dress that actually fits.

In order to get over sunk-cost fallacy, you have to focus more on the future than the past. You have to ask yourself, “Will future me be okay with this relationship five, ten years from now? What will future me gain from staying? What about from leaving?”

We often come to answers more easily when we contemplate our own deaths. “If I was to die a year from now, would I want to be in this relationship?” In one study aptly titled “No Time to Waste,” researchers found that asking young college students to contemplate a shorter life span allowed them to more easily overcome sunk-cost fallacy.

Making the decision like the one I did in leaving my ex-husband wasn’t easy. We’d spent nearly ten years together, had a home, several assets, but I wasn’t bailing as soon as things got hard. I finally had to admit that things had always been hard, and it was better for us to end our relationship.

Your happiness is subjective, and there’s no magic formula. But if your relationship is the equivalent of an ill-fitting dress, it’s liberating to finally give it up, to free up that closet space for something just right.

Want to look at your previous relationship baggage and work toward something more positive and healthy today? Click here to sign up for my FREE “Relationship Self-Reflection” worksheet!

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