I recently read an example of the “sunk cost” fallacy on a forum I follow. The original poster (OP) needed help because of their significant other (SO) acting abusive. As the online community rallied to help, more and more details about their relationship began to surface. The two of them had been dating for ten years. Their SO gradually got worse the longer they were together. Finally, the OP opened up to explain the progression of their relationship. Essentially, by the end of the discussion, the entire forum agreed that the only way they could move past this point was if the OP left their SO.
Ten Years Sunk Cost
The OP struggled so much with the idea of breaking up because they only saw their ten years of work. For someone in their twenties, that meant they’d wasted half of their life. For those of us who were in our thirties, forties, fifties, and older, we saw a bigger picture. Sometimes, to avoid the sunk cost trap, you need to see things from another perspective.
For instance, imagine buying tickets to a movie that everyone raved about. However, when you get to the theater, you immediately realize that you really can’t stand the content of the movie. At this point, you can identify the sunk cost fallacy by your two options:
- Realize you wasted your money and sit through the movie on principle.
- Realize you wasted your money and do literally anything else.
The first thing that went through my head at the end of this conversation stemmed from a recent article I co-wrote with Crystal. In it, we discuss the several bumps and obstacles, including my own stupid decisions, that we faced when I broke out of my shell. Through several introspective thoughts, I wondered if Crystal stayed with me through that based on her own Sunk Cost.
After discussing it with her to some length, she convinced me that she only stuck around because she truly loved me. So then, my brain began to analyze other parts of my life.
Sunk Cost for Parents and Families
My own parents raised me into a good parent, worthy husband, and reliable provider. In their eyes, they taught me to be a manly/macho man. And to some extent, they did. However, as I began living without hiding who I was, they and others refused to see me any differently than they had. For my parents, that would mean a sunk cost of eighteen years from their perspective. For others, that number varied anywhere from four to thirty years.
Never have I ever excised someone from my life for disagreeing with me. That means I will allow people to vocalize their opinions, no matter how far-fetched, emotional, or incredible they sound. However, when someone vocalizes those opinions, I automatically presume they consent to have their ideas challenged. Unfortunately for them, no one ever taught them critical thinking, cognitive distortions, and logical fallacies. When faced with these concepts, people, especially family members, tend to turn downright hostile.
The only advice I am qualified to offer to those: Please get professional help. That’s what it took me to face my own deep-seated issues.
Personal Sunk Cost
On a very fundamental level, I relate. For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in a constant cycle of dependency and self-loathing. First, I would find some small things that brought me joy, like an article of feminine clothing or traditionally girly toy. Then, feel guilty for not living up to an unrealistic expectation of masculinity. Next, I would purge the object of my enjoyment, by giving it away, symbolically discarding it, or sometimes by literally burning it. Finally, the combination of determination and guilt would trigger deep-rooted anxiety that made it impossible to think clearly about anything else.
After I left home, this cycle expanded to gargantuan proportions. I would spend literally hundreds to thousands of dollars to experience a little bit of joy for a few hours every day. Then, I would purge in much the same way. In 2016, I knew this had to stop. But I’d invested thirty years of my life into acting exactly as manly and macho as I thought others expected. My sunk cost was literally the entirety of my life, and I expected to literally just stop.
Recovering from my sunk cost continues to take a concentrated effort. Similar to my movie analogy earlier, I can choose to recognize the waste and continue wasting more time, or I can recognize the waste and start living. Making my initial decision to live hardly made my life easier. In fact, in many ways, it takes a much more concentrated effort to remain honest with me. Fortunately, I have the support of my wife and varied support and understanding from various friends and family members. Crystal allows me to talk to her about anything I’m currently struggling with, and I’m able to articulate better every day.