A few times in recent weeks I have heard patients talk about staying in a relationship using this argument: “I’ve already invested so much.” They wonder if they should continue in the relationship because of the emotional energy and time they have put into it. In every case there has been a great amount invested — these are not trivial matters.
The economic concept of sunk cost has infiltrated the emotional economy of relationships. It is not unusual for the sciences of economics and psychology to intersect. Advertisers would be at a loss to sell us products without understanding our deepest motivations to look youthful, rich and happy. The idea of sunk cost states that an investment of money, time or energy must not necessarily influence your continued investment of money, time or energy. The past investment is “sunk” into the endeavor and cannot be recouped. It is gone. Ongoing investment will not resuscitate what is gone when the investment is a bad one.
People get bogged down by focusing on their sunk costs.
There are two ways to understand this process, both involving avoidance. One is an avoidance of disappointment or loss when something doesn’t work out. When a relationship doesn’t succeed, especially after a long period, especially after many shared experiences and especially after developing a hope that the relationship would be a good one, it is a loss. It is a loss of what might have been and an acknowledgement that a part of one’s life has been devoted to this endeavor.
Another angle to evaluate is that focus on “sunk cost” creates a distraction from one’s inner truth. The sentence often goes like, “I’ve already invested to much, so I can’t notice my thoughts and feelings that are telling me to end or change this relationship.”
This is a type of insidious defense against noticing yourself. You enter into a neglectful relationship with yourself which divorces you from your inner thoughts and the quiet feelings that might guide you in your life. In other words, thinking about what already has been may prevent you from deciding what you want your life to be.
The key is to clear away the distractions to rational and emotional clarity. Getting stuck in your “sunk cost” prevents you from this clarity, whether in your relationships or your investments!