Most likely, you can recall at least one former partner who lingered in your life a bit too long. You’re not by yourself: According to a recent Portuguese study, there may be a cause for why we end up in toxic relationships.
The “sunk cost fallacy” is something you may recall from Economics 101. According to the theory, it becomes more difficult to walk away from something the more time and money you invest in it. You’re simply too emotionally committed to see how cutting your losses could eventually result in greater things, even though you believe you’re making a logical choice.
The researchers claim that your romantic life is also affected by this. People were more inclined to stay in a relationship even when they weren’t happy if they had already committed a significant amount of time, money, and effort into it.
In other words, couples were more likely to keep on trudging through the misery if they’d been together for several years, had kids, or bought a house together compared to similarly unhappy couples with shorter timelines, no kids, or fewer mutual expenses.
The researchers also concluded that it’s often men and not women who are likely to stay in a bad relationship for these reasons.
Megan Close, LMFT, a marriage and family counselor based in New York City, sees this all the time in couples counseling. Tallying time and credit card charges instead of your emotional needs “often leads to affairs, overworking, and increased separate travel,” she said.
It’s not that we’re masochists—we’re pack animals. “We’re all wired to be together,” Close says. It’s tough to break a long-standing bond. You’ve gotten used to how your partner smells and feels, and those connections are powerful.
If you’re not sure whether to call it quits, consider whether your efforts to improve the relationship are doing any good. If you and your partner have made compromises, and the relationship still isn’t working, it may be time to rip the Band-Aid off.
Having a positive support system will help. Think about all the aspects of your life. Is your relationship the only outlier in terms of how happy you feel? “The more that you have great things going on at work, and friends, it makes it a lot easier to say ‘this doesn’t really fit in,’” Close says.
It’s not easy. “Staying together is the default,” Close says. Change is hard and messy and sad.
But knowing that and being able to look at your relationship honestly is the first step. Of course, breakups and divorce are terrible, but if you find that your main reasons sticking around are quantifiable things like the time you’ve spent together and the vacations you’ve already booked? It’s time to get out.