I wanted to write something about money, folks. I swear.
But for at least a week now, this post has been rattling around in my brain, refusing to let actual post topics in. And to be fair, this blog is often a space for whatever shiny and/or weird thing has captured my attention most recently. So I guess for my readers, this is more or less par for the course.
Anyway, here we go.
Girl power… sorta
I love Olivia Rodrigo’s song “Good for You.” It’s a great little peppy-but-snarky girl power song. Hard not to appreciate that.
But there’s one part of the song that always makes me grit my teeth a little:
And good for you, I guess that you’ve been working on yourself
I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped
Now you can be a better man for your brand-new girl
I find this problematic because it feeds a common worry of people in unhappy relationships. Namely, that if they break up with their partner, that person’s future significant others will benefit from all of their hard work.
The big fear
These folks have poured so much of their time and effort into a mediocre to crappy partner that — even though they’re exhausted and unhappy — they’re afraid to give up. Because they’re convinced that they’ll have gone through all of this anger and sadness and resentment — and the unpleasant work of pushing back against bad behavior– just to have someone else reap the benefits.
Never mind that if the person is that exhausted/unhappy, those “good habits” are probably being practiced intermittently at best. Or it means that there are still so many bad traits that the new good stuff doesn’t make much of a dent in the overall problem.
No, what really matters is that someone else might get the version of their partner that they’ve always wanted. That their partner won’t be half as devastated as they are by the breakup, will find someone quickly and will finally act the way they should’ve in the first place.
So they feel like they can’t give up on the relationship. Because if they do, they’ll end up sad and alone, watching someone else benefit from all their hard work.
It’s one of the most stark examples of sunk-cost fallacy I have ever seen.
The term itself
This is, of course, not the usual usage of the term “sunk-cost fallacy.”
Normally, this refers more to decisions made about spending money on a problem. For example, people are more likely to spend energy/money repairing something than replacing it — even if it’s easier or cheaper to replace it — because they see getting a replacement as “wasting” everything they’ve already put into the item or project.
In other words, if people have already spent time or money on something, they’re more likely to make an objectively suboptimal choice just to feel like all the energy or money spent was useful.
So the idea is that if you want to make the best choices for a given situation, you need to ignore any resource that’s already been already funneled into it and look only at the pros and cons of the current options.
A different perspective
That’s all well and good, but it’s a bit easier to isolate the objective value when we’re talking about things. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to apply it in interpersonal matters because we’re taught not to write people off as lost causes.
We’re told that people can grow and evolve — and will want to do so for the people they love. This means it can be hard to realize the scope of irrationality from sunk-cost fallacy when talking about realtionships.
So I’m going to change the parameters a bit: Instead of talking about a romantic relationship, we’re going to talk about a car.
Your friend comes to you and says their 15-year-old car — which they bought used and which has been a constant source of headaches ever since — has once again died on them.
They complain about how much it cost to tow the car to the mechanic and how much the latest repair bill will probably be. You express surprise that they’re even bothering trying to fix it.
You remind them that there are so many facets of this car that annoy them. There’s the rattling sound when the A/C is on. The radio doesn’t work, and the stereo was installed badly, so they can’t replace it — meaning they just have to carry a binder of CDs around if they want music. Not to mention the unreliable fuel gauge that has left them stranded more than once.
Oh, and that little thing where the car can’t even be relied on to get them from point A to point B.
Your friend tells you that you just don’t understand.
They’ve had this car for so long that it’s a huge part of their life. They can’t imagine living without it — and they definitely can’t imagine life with a different car. After all, who knows what problems a different car would have. Those could be even worse!
Okaaaaay, you say (trying to be patient and understanding), but the question isn’t about what any future cars will be like. The issue is that their current car isn’t making them happy — it is, in fact, making their lives harder. Not to mention that it’s quite literally not getting them to where they want to be.
The friend waves a hand dismissively and tells you that you’re only remembering the bad times. Of course those are going to stick out when you look back. But that’s not what it’s been like all the time.
In fact, they insist, there were plenty of times where the car was working just fine. They smile wistfully as as they tell you how it can go weeks — sometimes months — without anything breaking or falling off.
They say that during those times, their life with the car was just so… peaceful and easy. And when you have a dynamic that can feel that effortless, they say, it would be a huge overreaction to get rid of the car just because sometimes it’s less than ideal.
So you gently point out maybe they’re actually the ones using selective memory. Perhaps they’re letting nostalgia and fear of change make them forget how things really are?
Because, you remind them, even when the car hasn’t needed repairs for a bit, your friend still routinely complains about other issues. That weird rattling sound is irritating. They can’t charge their phone. And good god but they’d love to be able to go more than 50 miles an hour.
So, you point out, even those “easy” times weren’t necessarily happy ones.
Yes, fine, your friend says. Sure, there are little problems. But they’re quick to point out that no car is perfect. If you have one long enough, some issues will show up. It’s just how things go.
Then they get serious and say that, when it comes down to it, there are plenty of times they could be a better owner. They sometimes put off oil changes, and there was that time they dented the car with a shopping cart. They’re hardly blameless!
Yes, you say (sighing deeply), of course we could all stand to be a bit better overall. But delaying an oil change by a week doesn’t make it okay that the front bumper falls off. Or that the car likes to stall out on steep hills — usually during rush hour.
You tell them that you absolutely agree that no car will ever be perfect. But that’s not the issue here. What they need to acknowledge is that this car’s issues are making them unhappy.
But it’s gotten better!
And this is when your friend rushes to say that actually since those last couple of repairs, the A/C’s rattle is much quieter… A lot of the time anyway. And when the car tops out at 50 miles an hour, sometimes the frame is barely even shaking!
So, they say, clearly their commitment to this car has, in fact, paid off.
Okay, you reply (very tiredly), but those are only some of the issues. And by your friend’s own admission, those are only better part of the time.
Meanwhile, there are major issues that haven’t been fixed. And all of the years that they’ve been trying to make this a good car, haven’t changed that.
You then add that those issues — which, again, don’t seem to be going anywhere — are keeping them from being happy. And that’s what this conversation needs to be about.
They deserve a reward
Now they get defensive.
You can’t understand, they say. You got lucky and found a steady, smooth-running car. Some cars are inherently great, but most cars turn out to have underlying issues. And you just have to deal with that. Because that’s just part of being a car owner.
They tell you that they’ve accepted this and thus have done their best to roll with the punches, to put up with the car’s “quirks” and to try to fix things as they pop up. And to try to learn to live with the stuff that seems unfixable.
They tell you that they’ve spent more energy and money than you can possibly understand trying to make this car work for them, funneling money into it and putting up with its “quirks.” And by god, that can’t have been all for nothing!
The way they see it, getting rid of the car now would be giving up — which also means kissing all of their past money and energy goodbye — when things really aren’t as terrible as you’re making it sound.
They just put $1,500 into fixes last month. How can they just shrug and walk away?
They say again that the fixes are actually working. They’ve seen some improvement. Sure, it’s still not a great car by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s better.
And shouldn’t they get to enjoy that? Why on earth would they give up now, when they’re finally seeing some progress, finally getting a bit of a reward for all that patience and money?
No one else deserves it
At this point, they’ve started talking faster and probably waving their hands around a little.
They want to know if you really expect them to just… give up. Because that’s crazy.
They can’t just let go — not when they’re so close to have the car they’ve wanted for so long. Okay fine — they say, as you open your mouth to protest — when they’re so close to having a car that’s… more similar to the car that they’ve wanted.
Are you really saying that they let someone else try? Knowing that the person gets to enjoy all the ways your friend has made the car better (or at least kept it running)?
Back to the big fear
So now your friend is finally facing the real worry here. Their face gets sorrowful and maybe a little bit panicky as they accept what’s really holding them back: They can’t just let the car go because — as bad a car as it’s been for them — they can’t stand the idea that maybe it would be a good one for someone else.
What if the new owner knows a little more about cars and after a few small tweaks, the car is clipping along nicely and they were happily cruising around for the foreseeable future?
What if that person just gets to ride along, sitting comfortably on the new seat your friend got when springs started poking through the surface of the old one, not even realize that they could easily rest their foot because your friend paid to patch the hole where part of the floor just fell out that time? What if they get to have a great, easy experience with the car because of all the things your friend worked to make better?
The most likely scenario
You acknowledge that their concern is understandable, but you also tell your friend that major change in the car is unlikely. After all, they’re this unhappy precisely because the car hasn’t changed much, despite an extensive array of tactics.
So, you say, the chances of someone else just miraculously getting the car to work better are very slim.
You tell them that it’s more likely that any apparent changes the new person manages to make won’t last. And even if they do, those will be for small, superficial things.
The more serious issues will still be there, so before long, the car will start running poorly again. It’ll act up in all of the ways it did with your friend. But thankfully, it’s someone else’s problem now.
But even if it works…
You stop and acknowledge that there is a small chance that the new person won’t run into the same issues, that it’s possible that the next person will just be a better fit for the car.
Maybe that person doesn’t like highways, so the 50 mph cap isn’t a problem. Maybe they love to belt out songs (and have an extensive CD collection), so they can easily drown out the rattle and don’t need a working radio.
But, you say, regardless of whether certain things bug any future owner, they definitely bug your friend, and that wasn’t going to change. So keeping the car doesn’t change anything for them.
In fact, you admit, there’s a slim chance — very slim, but still there — that the car will just stop acting up with a new person. No one would be able to say why. The car would just finally be the one your friend had been trying for since they first bought the car.
But even in the highly unlikely event that came to pass, your friend still gets nothing out of keeping the car.
Because the simple fact is that their many and various improvement efforts over the years didn’t work. They had been patient and understanding and willing to work to fix things for years, so if the car hadn’t improved by now, putting in more time/energy/money wouldn’t suddenly get them the desired results.
This car, you tell them, will never be the car they need it to be. The car has improved as much as it ever will. Its progress has, well, stalled out.
“Look [friend’s name],” you say, “you can keep the car and you’ll ensure that no one else from benefits from your efforts. But you’ll also be ensuring that you never have the car you want — that you deserve.
“So if you lose a bit either way, you may was well take the smaller L — the one where you have a chance at future happiness with a different vehicle.”
Looked at from the slight (and hopefully enjoyably humorous) remove, we can see just how easily we can let a sunk-cost fallacy keep us from making the best decisions for ourselves.
Don’t worry about what your partner’s future partners might get out of your hard-fought efforts to make him/her/them better. Worry about what you’re getting out of them — and don’t take into account future changes that “might” happen (despite not having taken place with all of your efforts thus far). Ask yourself if your partner is meeting needs that you have made clear to them.
And if (or likely when) you accept that the answer is no and choose to move on, don’t dwell on any potential better behavior the person has after the breakup. There’s no guarantee that it’s permanent, and there’s definitely a guarantee that they weren’t willing to act that way for you.
Instead, be grateful that you no longer have to worry about whether a change in attitude/actions is real or for show, permanent or fleeting. Be grateful that you no longer have to decide how much to compromise yet again — often on things that you always said were deal-breakers.
Mostly, be grateful that you are giving yourself a chance to meet someone who can actually be the right partner for you.
But even if you’re sure you never want to date again, just be relieved that you no longer have to spend all of that time and energy justifying things to yourself and your friends — and that you can finally to let go of all of the pent up resentment that you’re likely carrying around. It’s so much heavier than you realize. Trust me — I know what I’m talking about.
Has anyone else struggled with sunk-cost fallacy (of any sort) in life?
FYI, for anyone who enjoyed the snarky framing of the post, I was somewhat channeling the infamous “velociraptors” comment on a Captain Awkward post. (I can’t link directly to the comment, so just click that link and either Ctrl+F “velociraptors” or scroll to the fourth comment shown. Warning: Hilarious but foul language.)