The sunk cost fallacy originated as a business concept, but it really is quite applicable to personal relationships. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article there are five resources we invest in an endeavor: (1) time, (2) effort, (3) money, (4) emotion and (5) our beliefs. The false logic that I see many try to use to justify staying in a bad relationship/marriage is that they have already invested so many resources in this situation that they need to just stick with it. The problem is a bad investment that isn’t yielding a decent return rarely gets better over time or by just sinking more resources into it. In fact, most times it is best to just cut your losses and move on.
Moving on is easier said than done, especially when you have merged your finances, entangled your lives together, and know there are complicated or serious monetary, legal and/or social consequences to calling it quits. When weighing your options, especially if there isn’t a clean exit, you need to get both legal advice from an experienced attorney and help from a mental health professional. This is going to be an exercise in mitigating damages with experts in damage control.
As a divorce attorney for over 20 years in the DC Area, dealing with romantic fiascos is my specialty. These popular Netflix series that highlight romantic affairs that go awry don’t shock me or my colleagues, because cases like the Tinder Swindler or Bad Vegan happen every day in my world, just maybe on a smaller scale. And while I think it is great that these cases are getting the public’s attention, I am afraid that many will watch them and just say the chances of this happening are one in a million. This means the real message is getting lost here.
Even though I don’t consider myself a numbers person, I do think we need to consider the real stats here. According to an NIH study that is often cited in the legal world, about 15% of the U.S. population has a High Conflict Personality (which corresponds to the number of cases flagged as “high conflict” in family court). In addition, we all know there are many cases of undiagnosed or untreated depression, anxiety or bi-polar disorder out there. I’m going to hypothesize that this is another 15% of the population, and I think that is a very conservative number. What this means is you have at least a 1 in 3 chance of engaging with someone that has major psychological issues.
Sadly, our susceptibility to a toxic relationship is greater today than ever before as a result of COVID, because now more than ever so many of us are isolated and vulnerable. We have all suffered setbacks the past two years, many of us now work from home, and it is normal to want to connect with others again and find a significant other that makes you feel special and loved. While no one wants to deprive people of this very basic human experience, I do think we all need to be more vigilant and proceed with caution. There is no need to move at warped speed. It takes time to truly get to know someone and develop trust.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in Lean In, the choice you make for a life partner is one of the most important life decisions ever. So don’t rush it– unless you want your claim to fame to be the star of the next Netflix romance gone wrong documentary.
Stay tuned for the link to my interview on this topic with one of New York’s finest divorce attorneys, Evan Schein, who is the host of the Schein On podcast! In the meantime, here is the link to the Harvard Business Review article on the sunken cost fallacy:
How Susceptible Are You to the Sunk Cost Fallacy? (hbr.org)
By Regina A. DeMeo