Most of us have had the experience of buying a new item of clothing, taking it home and then hanging it in the closet. The years drift by and every time you look at it you think “no, it’s not really me”. You can’t bring yourself to throw it out even though you know you will never wear it. You might rationalise it by saying “it’s almost new and I paid a lot for it…….can’t throw it out”.
The same thing can happen in a relationship. You know rationally it is not working but you can’t take action. You can’t bring yourself to abandon the “sunk cost” of your prior decisions. You might feel you have to justify why you have stayed so long. Thoughts may arise such as “If I left it would mean admitting I wasted all that time”, “If I left it would prove I was a failure”, “I am sure things will turn around.” You might find your reasons for maintaining the status quo shifting because of your internal drive to justify your past actions.
The irony is that the longer you maintain the situation the bigger the “sunk costs” become and the greater the need to justify your original decisions. A feedback loop can develop. You end up making decisions overweighting the past compared to making decisions on personal values appropriate to the moment.
Sunk costs can be lurking in all areas of our lives. Relationships and career are two of the most obvious areas. We don’t want to trivialise sunk costs as a black and white issue, as with most things in life grey permeates. However, awareness of the concept of sunk costs can provide greater understanding of our current situations and why it can be so difficult to change areas we do not feel satisfied with. Sunk costs can fuel our ambivalence regarding change.
There are many ways you can work with the idea of sunk costs in your life. One way to get a clearer idea if a sunk cost might be lurking in a particular situation is ask yourself, in the cold light of day, if you had never got into this behaviour, would you make a decision to get into it now? Sunk costs are just one factor to consider when thoughts of change are in the air……..