In Relationships, Don’t Double Down on a Bad Investment
Scores of people, myself included, have settled for unhappy relationships because of the belief that we were in love. I have stayed in abusive relationships because I mistook “love” for temporary validation or attention. I’ve also demanded “love” from people who, for whatever reasons they had, did not feel the same for me. My abusers didn’t really love me, and I didn’t really love the poor men I happened to be infatuated with and demanded attention from.
Real love is not forced. So why do we keep settling for less?
It occurred to me that in matters of the heart, many people may be doubling down on a relationship despite how unhappy they are. Doubling down typically means one is strengthening commitment to an investment or endeavor that is particularly risky. Sometimes there is a payoff, but other times the investor digs themselves into a deeper and deeper financial or emotional pit.
Every dollar I loaned that I knew I’d never see again and every cruel comment I submitted to was digging myself deeper into what I thought was a relationship that would pay off. If I help him pay his bills now so he can get on his feet, we’ll be able to have a solid future and get married. If I don’t confront him on the verbal or emotional abuse, I won’t offend him and push him away, and I won’t be alone. I’ve forced myself to make bad relationships work. I doubled down and hoped my investment of time and energy would pay off with security and comfort that was never going to come.
There’s an interesting term in business management literature that may shed a light on why people push harder to salvage an unsalvageable relationship: “escalation of commitment: holding on too long to a strategy that was once successful.”
A classic example of this phenomenon is the strategy of Kodak when digital cameras entered the marketplace. Kodak missed the opportunity to adapt and transform its business model and doubled down on what had worked in the past. Eventually the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
According to a Harvard Business Review article by Freek Vermeulen and Niro Sivanathan, research on the escalation of commitment bias has shown that people’s judgment may be influenced by six main factors, causing them to continue investing in a business prospect that will fail.
In relationships, the factors translate eerily well:
- Personal identification: People identify themselves with the commitments they make. Breaking away from a relationship may be a threat to how a person sees themselves or how they perceive the world sees them. If not a boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, partner, who are you?
- Sunk cost fallacy: You’ve invested time, emotional energy, and money into this relationship. Perhaps you have children with this person. If you walk away, you may be left with nothing, and that can be a very scary reality. If you stay, maybe there’s a chance you can recoup your “investment,” and you’ll finally be loved the way you want and deserve. Or will you?
- The illusion of control: As Vermeulen and Sivanathan state: “People habitually overestimate their ability to control the future.” It’s rare that a relationship is completely terrible in every aspect. The fact that abusive, unhappy relationships do have some pleasant moments can make them all the more insidious. Hope for a better future and “proof” that there indeed has been some happiness can keep you trapped.
- Pluralistic ignorance: People who see red flags may feel they are alone in their beliefs and remain silent on a loved one’s relationship. For the person in the failing relationship, they may take silence from their family or friends as acceptance of their partnership. In turn, they may shake off their own reservations as paranoia since no one else seems to think anything is wrong.
- Loss aversion: Loss is scary. Loss is hard. Being alone without the anchor of a relationship can seem daunting. In our culture people are so afraid of being single, or they are shamed for it, they would rather endure an unhappy situation than face the possibility of being without a partner.
- Preference for completion: It’s human nature to see a task from start to finish. There’s something psychologically satisfying about completion. People don’t like to fail, however that failure is defined. Unfortunately, many people will hold onto a dying relationship because they see the ending of it as a failure rather than a viable resolution.
Love isn’t a business venture, but there’s something to be learned from this concept.
If you find yourself constantly justifying to yourself or others why you are staying in a failing relationship, examine the problems at face value.
Challenge yourself: Are you doubling down on a situation that will never get better?
Think about the future: Consider the long-term effects of doubling down on your failing relationship. What, realistically, is the outcome if you accept the status quo?
Ask yourself questions: What are your doubts or fears that keep you in your situation? What people or resources might you need to help you change your situation?
Listen: to your dissenters, and if your own intuition is telling you that something is wrong, listen to it as well.
Remember this: A failing relationship doesn’t mean you are a failure. You’re a human being in a situation that isn’t making you happy. You deserve to be in one that does whether it’s enjoying life alone or with someone else.
Melanie Gibson is a second degree black belt in taekwondo and the author of the upcoming book, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts (April 2021, She Writes Press).