When you practice family law and divorce, for over 25 years, you spend
a lot of time trying to understand every aspect of it from the intricacies
of law to the nuances of relationships. I've recently been studying
the economic theory of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and applying it to divorce
and the re-casting of relationships.
The Fallacy pertains to our willingness to continue to expend resources
based upon our prior expenditure of resources. Whenever you have invested
in a project, you will tend to continue to invest in that project, just
because you've already sunk costs into it. A frequent example of this
as a fallacy is: you are walking to a store that is 10 blocks away. Eight
blocks down the road, you remember that the store is closed at this hour.
Logic says you don't continue walking the remaining two blocks. Unfortunately,
our choices are seldom so clear.
Applied to relationships, the fallacy is continuing to invest in that relationship
because of the time on task you've already expended. Yeah, you're
not happy but you've already spent five years with her. It would be
a shame to give that up. But from the fallacy's view point, that is
like throwing good money after bad. That five years is spent, you aren't
getting that back no matter what you spend in the future. If the now is
not worth it, history is a poor substitute.
The problem with the proof of the fallacy is that the examples are always
offered from the perspective of hindsight, looking back at the now obvious
warning signs of inevitable demise.
There is great merit to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. There is great truth to
the Sunk Cost Fallacy. But it necessarily leaves one element out. Since
the situation would only be relevant in the present moment, "what
should I do now" perspective, hindight doesn't help. We can all
figure out the wrong fork in the road after we've taken it and met
an undesirable end. But before we get to the end, we continue to hope.
That hope, then, is central to the fallacy.
But should we have no hope? How can we not?
An economist gave an example on NPR last week. After her breakup, she recalled
a conversation she and her boyfriend were having with a stranger in a
bar about three years earlier. The boyfriend said to the stranger, "I
don't think you should say 'I love you,' until you know you
have the right one. I haven't said it to her (the economist) and I
don't see it happening for a long time to come." To the economist,
her remaining in the relationship afterward was proof of the fallacy.
If you have such an obvious example, yes, you are sinking your time into
a relationship that will not prove worth it. But most examples are not
so obvious. Most examples are subtle. Most examples from real life are
slights against each other,
quick jabs of contempt in seemingly civil conversation. It is a good marker of impending demise. Divorce is not necessarily yet
a settled issue.
So, is the fallacy fallacious? No. It is true. But does it answer your
question in the moment? It advises your question in the moment but does
not answer it. It places the time on task element of your analysis front
and center. If your history together looms large in your reason to stay,
you are living the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
If that's you, it's probably time to cut your losses, it's
probably time to stop spending good money after bad. But if your analysis
of your relationship contains the element of hope, which springs eternal
we're told, perhaps it is time to drop another quarter in the juke
box and see if some dancing ensues.