When Should You Quit a Relationship?

August 14, 2014

winners quitIn their new book Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your BrainLevitt and Dubner bring their unconventional economic analysis to bear on some interesting problems. One of them is the question of when to throw in the towel on your relationship.

In the chapter The Upside of Quitting, they argue that quitting is underrated. We have a strong bias against giving up.

Three primary forces bias us against quitting:

1. A lifetime of being told that quitting is a sign of failure. 

“A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.”

Knowing when to peace out is a critically important life skill. Would you want a financial advisor who could never bring herself to sell?

Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said:

“In medicine or in science, if you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to do down that path again.

In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.”

Very often we stay in relationships for the same reason. We don’t want to revise our Facebook status to “single.” We don’t want to face that we’ve learned that the person we’re with is not the one after all. We don’t want to learn the lessons and apply them to future relationships. It’s work, and it’s risk, and the idea of starting all over again is understandably daunting.

We don’t want to acknowledge failure in any area of our lives, and relationships are no exception.

“When failure is demonized, people will try to avoid it at all costs – even when it represents nothing more than a temporary setback.”

2. The notion of sunk costs.

As obvious as it sounds, we fail to recognize that previous investment does not justify future investment. I hear this a lot from readers who are thinking about ending their relationships. It’s most prevalent when a couple’s been together a really long time.

“We’ve dated 7 years, I can’t accept that it was all for nothing.”

Or “I’m so close to his family, our lives are so intertwined, I can’t imagine not being part of that anymore.”

This is a fallacy!

You should take stock of where you are, how well it’s working, and where you think you’re headed. Previous investment is totally irrelevant and says nothing about the wisdom of remaining together.

3. The failure to identify opportunity cost.

When we’re thinking of getting out of a relationship, we have a strong tendency to say to ourselves, “What if I never find someone else?” Instead, we should be asking ourselves what we’re missing out on. Staying in a bad relationship may mean missing out on a great one.

To be sure, some people never stop thinking about what they might be missing out on, and they’re the ones who never commit. But so often we think about important life decisions without considering opportunity cost.

Stella told me that her shrink explained it to her this way:

You’ve got a certain amount of emotional energy that is available to any relationship.

If  you’re in a great relationship, you are 100% ocupado and you “read” as unavailable.

—–> If you are dissatisfied in your relationship, you may read as 50% available. We know that’s an opening for mischief to occur.

—–> If you’re trying to get over someone, and wanting to meet new people, you’ll still only come across as partially available.

—–> Only by making yourself truly available for a new relationship can you attain 100% emotional availability.

The Formula for Knowing When to Quit

Levitt and Dubner offer this formula:

Quit when opportunity cost outweighs sunk cost.

If OC > SC, then break up.

If there’s the real potential for something better out there – a relationship you could happily sustain for 50 years, then what you’ve got invested in your current unsatisfactory relationship is immaterial.

The Freakonomics Experiment

The Freakonomics guys set up a website and asked people to cite a dilemma they were having trouble resolving. They offered to flip a coin and provide the decision. After a few weeks, 40K people had flipped coins. 60% were male, 40% were female. The average age was just under 30 and 73% were American.

Of those who asked the question “Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?” 60% did follow the coin toss. About 100 couples broke up and 100 couples stayed together.

Of those who broke up, quitting made them happier. (The other main thing that made people happier was quitting a job.) Levitt and Dubner conclude:

“Quitting does not lead to misery.”

This is not to suggest that you should end a satisfying and rewarding relationship. But if you’re not satisfied in your relationship, there’s a good chance that quitting it will make you happier and open you up to something better.

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