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The more time, money, or effort you sacrifice for something, the more you convince yourself you like it in order to avoid the feeling that you wasted effort. This holds true for many things in life, but nowhere is this more evident than in relationships that have clearly run their course.

While it can sometimes be easier to quit on new relationships (I count “new” as a year or under), it’s easy to see how people can be reluctant to give up on long running relationships. Think about what it means to be in a 5-year relationship. That’s 260 weeks of Netflix binges, inside jokes, maybe a shared pet that’s become like a child and a houseplant that has definitely seen some better days. Five years is a lot of freaking time, time you’re never getting back. It’s a hard pill to swallow, having to admit that just like the milk you forgot about in your fridge, your relationship is way past its expiration date.

We’re all a bit obsessed with our investment, whether it’s the time, money, or the fact that you’ve watched “How I Met Your Mother” together 6 times and can’t imagine doing that with anyone else. And the more we invest, the harder it is to walk away. But in a life where the best-case scenario is you get 4000 weeks, why do so many people insist on making it 261 weeks in an attempt to fix a sinking ship?

why we can’t quit

If humans were half as rational as we like to claim to be, we’d have very few problems in life. But we’re not, we’re creatures of emotion, habit, and cling to what’s comfortably familiar. Even a relationship that makes you want to pull your hair out brings with it an element of comfortable predictability.

Every relationship goes through bumps and rough patches, it’s inevitable. But if you’re consistently getting that lingering brain itch, you know the “am I really going to be with this person for the rest of my life” itch, then you know it’s more than just a bump in the road. This itch will have you realizing that you’ve invested half a decade with someone who now feels less like the love of your life and more like a roommate with benefits (if you’re lucky). Someone who for one reason or another, no longer feels like they are right for you.

It’s at this point that you will be faced with something all gamblers are very familiar with, the sunk cost fallacy. This is what happens when you refuse to abandon a course of action because of what you have invested into it, even when abandoning your current path would clearly be more beneficial.

the emotional casino

Ever since I first read about the sunk cost fallacy, I’ve thought that a casino is a very appropriate metaphor for relationships. Love is a lot like gambling. For most people who actively date, the goal is to find a long-term partner to marry, elope, maybe start a meth lab with (I don’t judge, whatever floats your boat). The point is, a life partner is like hitting the proverbial jackpot.

So, if a long term partner is jackpot, then that makes the people you date the spots on the roulette table, and the time, money, and effort you spend on these people are the chips you bet with. Hoping that if you put down enough chips in the form of dates, quality time spent together and the occasional flowers and chocolates that you’ll finally hit it big and have the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with.  

It perfectly explains why all of us single people keep coming back to those hell forsaken dating apps, because you’re always one swipe away from hitting it big. Relationships are the exact same, sometimes we stay at the table because we’re sure our luck is about to change. Maybe the person in front of you now has fundamentally changed so much that they are no longer the same person you decided to be in a relationship with, yet you keep holding out hope that you can bring that old version back. Maybe they were a bum this whole time but you were so blinded by your infatuation to them that it’s just taken you this long to realize. Or maybe, through no fault of either party, life has decided to pull you in separate directions and you try cling on to relationship that is going to suffer and crack no matter what you try do to save it.

But unlike in a casino where you can walk away with some money in your pocket and (hopefully) some dignity, walking away from a relationship can feel like you’re leaving completely empty-handed. That’s because you’re not just walking away from that person, you’re walking away from the part of your identity that was tied up in this duo. All the late vulnerable nights, all the birthdays, the random adventures and growing experiences.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s not just your past you’re walking away from, it’s also your future. All the holidays you’re never going to have, the kids you’ll never get to raise together, all the things you once thought you’d do together and all the plans you had with this person just vanish. Or in casino terms, all the money you’ll never get to win, it’s gone, wiped clean. It feels less like a breakup and more like declaring emotional bankruptcy. 

the exit strategy

If you do feel like it’s really time to call it quits, don’t wait for “the right time” to do it. Because I promise you, there never has been and there never will be, a “good time” to shatter your partner’s heart. Make it a clean break (or as clean as you can given your circumstance). Don’t just go into the conversation unprepared, think about exactly what you want to say.

Believe me no matter how prepared you are, you will get flustered in the moment. You would be amazed how quickly that well thought out, articulated speech you had turns into stuttering and stammering when the reality and emotion of the moment hits you. So it helps having some idea of the things you need to get off your chest when the conversation inevitably takes a left turn.

The last thing you want is to get, or even worse be the one to send that “I just need closure” text. End the book on a full stop, not on a “to be continued”. What you do is sit down with them, face to face, and say your piece, all of it. It’s not about them or you; it’s about the fact that the relationship’s run its course, and you both deserve the chance to find something that’s better than just passable.

the bright side

Unless it’s a very unhealthy or toxic relationship, it can be difficult to ever view a breakup as a positive experience. Because in a lot of ways it does feel like you’re starting back at square one, about to be subjugated to the hell that is answering what your favorite color is every time you meet someone new.

The longer the relationship was, the bigger the temptation to go back will be. But every time you get hit with that dose of post relationship grief, remember that the life you wanted could not have been possible with that person. If it had been then there would have been no reason to walk away. Framed from this perspective, walking away feels less like a loss and more like a step towards a life more deserving. 

The truth is that life is too damn short, remember 4000 weeks. And through that lens you have to realize that it’s not worth settling for “meh” when you could have “holy shit, this is the greatest thing ever!” As difficult as they are, a relationship and a partner should be your greatest source of strength and inspiration, not just a tax benefit and someone to help split the bills with. And to get that you sometimes have to say goodbye to the comfortable to make room for the spectacular.

in the end it’s about growth

Experience is not a tangible thing that can make you feel like you’ve “gained” something from the whole ordeal. I don’t want to hammer home the cliché of “it’s all a learning experience” but it truly is. The lesson is different for everyone, some learn what it means to be a good partner, some learn precisely what they can’t tolerate in a partner and some realise what they have to fix about themselves first before committing to a new person, lest they repeat the same mistakes in their future relationships.

Remember, breaking up is not about winning or losing, it’s about being true to yourself and listening to that little voice in your head that keeps saying “this isn’t what I really want”. It’s about acknowledging that the sunk cost of lost time isn’t a reason to stay; it’s the exact reason to leave.

Disclaimer: if you read this and break up with your partner and then end up alone for the rest of your life, I am not responsible.

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