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The sunk cost fallacy

In psychology, this concept is also referred to as the “sunk cost effect.” The premise behind this theory is that humans are innately a risk averse species. We would rather continue investing in an option we have already begun investing in, than stop while we are behind. In other words, when the option we have picked is not the best one, or even a good one, we will continue to expend resources in pursuit of a pay-off rather than go another route that we have yet to try. Silly right? Well, we come by it honestly – evolution has rewarded this kind of behavior. Organisms that favoured avoiding risks over maximizing rewards survived long enough to pass on their genetic material.

This can be true of actual gambling, stock market decisions or our daily relationships. But taking the risk, changing our course, and letting go of what we know, can be what betters our life experience.

The way the sunk cost fallacy plays out in marriages is something we have all seen in our various environments. A couple has been together for however many years, they think “well we have stuck it out this long,” and remain in the relationship because they think that their best years are behind them, they would never find a more suitable mate, or that the possibility of being alone is more frightening than the certainty that they will be “moderately” unhappy for the duration of their life with their spouse. Fear of the unknown makes people more willing to stick with the “evil they know” rather than face the potentially worse alternative.

Marriage is a special and sacred bond that ought to be honoured; couples should try their hardest to work through their problems, make time for each other, go to counseling and prioritize the relationship. Unfortunately, this might not always heal a divide between two spouses, and when that happens it is often better to take the risk and jump into the unknown. If you know you are going to be unhappy in your marriage for the long haul, then the potential for happiness alone or with someone new might be a risk worth the reward.

For the Children

This is another common excuse for prolonging an unhappy union. The breaking up of a family unit is distressing for everyone, and there should be real effort put into making it work. Counseling, therapy and date nights should be considered before calling it quits. Having said that, there is no reason to believe that staying together is better for children than divorcing.

The reality is that children are intuitive and sensitive beings, who are likely attuned to the tensions within the household, regardless of whether or not they are spoken. Children from high conflict or high-tension households can suffer from anxiety, depression and relational issues as they grow and develop.

A 2015 study from the University of Vermont conducted on children from high conflict and low conflict homes saw that children from high conflict homes experienced neurological changes in how they processed body language. Children from these homes had learned to become hyper-vigilant, and showed signed of stress when exposed to photos depicting emotional body language. The models and behaviours that you display in your home will set the stage for how your children function as adults. They will learn from watching you interact with others how to be affectionate, how to resolve conflicts, how to be a parent and how to be a spouse. These life skills are vital, and it may be more beneficial for your children to see you be proactive about your mental health and happiness by separating from an unhappy union. When these transitions are handled with maturity and respect, children can learn how to best deal with conflict, and how to communicate through life’s difficult challenges.

To not be seen as a failure

A lot of people attach shame and stigma to a failed marriage. How do you tell your parents, friends or children that you are calling it quits? This is simply another fallacy however; it is silly to think that sticking it out in an unfulfilling relationship until somebody dies is an indicator of success.

Does it not seem more reasonable to think that sharing a loving, respectful union for a few years or decades and then realizing you have grown apart is success?

Social pressures to conform to someone else’s ideal can lead individuals to stay in an unhappy marriage, but at the end of the day who do you really need to please?

Surely the people who matter are the ones who would want you to lead a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. If that isn’t their priority, who needs ‘em?

Perhaps the person whose disapproval you fear most is a parent or child – someone who will be in your life no matter what. Give them time to see the positive changes that your separation will bring, and in time their perception of failure might change too.