The Difficulty – And Necessity – of Walking Away

May 16, 2013

Yesterday in The Atlantic, Heidi Grant Halvorsen wrote about the human inability to walk away. She compared this to the “sunk cost fallacy,” an economic theory that describes why people often continue to invest in an obviously failing endeavor. The idea, she says, is that we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’ve wasted something — time, money, emotions — on an investment that’s not going to pay off. “Putting in a lot, only to end up with nothing to show for it, is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider,” she writes.

The article came at an opportune time for me, as I’ve recently been thinking about my last relationship, and wondering why on earth I stayed in it for so long.

The relationship lasted over a year, and finally ended last August — and even then, he was the one to break it off, not me. He lived in LA and I lived in Boston, and I had just returned from a week-long visit with him. During the visit, we’d spent a lot of time inside watching TV, had a small amount of mediocre sex, and largely found each other to be a pain in the ass. For much of the time, I sat next to him in the car as we slogged through LA traffic, fantasizing about a life without him. And yet, on the day of my flight home, I told him I loved him and would miss him terribly, and got on the plane one hundred percent still his girlfriend.

We’d met the previous June, and then decided to stay together when he went to LA for a semester, dutifully doing the long-distance thing from December to May. And then, in May, he’d come back to Boston to stay until July. Together at last! We spent those three months crying, being sweaty and unhappy next to each other on the mattress that served as his bed, and pretending to be ok with what the other person wanted to do (I wanted to do couple things, like go swimming and go out to dinner; he wanted to work on the movie he was making and have me around to cheer him on).

While he was here, we hit our one-year anniversary. I told him that I’d like celebrate with dinner out, and he excitedly agreed. But on the appointed day, he was working on his movie, and forgot, and we didn’t end up at dinner until 9 PM.

I was annoyed, of course. And he was pre-occupied; his friends were having a party which we planned to join as soon as we were done. We spent the dinner gulping down wine and talking about the past year. What are the good things about this relationship? he asked me. I told him that I’d come so far since meeting him, he’d pushed me in so many ways, and yes, we had different schedules and lifestyles and ways of treating people, and were in entirely different places in our careers and social development, but he supported me! He told me that he was grateful for my unwavering support of him and his work, and that he felt so good about us. I remember looking at him ardently; I needed him to see that this was good, even though I knew it wasn’t. We were both so entrenched, so deeply and blindly invested, that we felt it necessary to spend our anniversary dinner convincing each other there was something to celebrate.

After he went back to LA, I continued to lie with a vengeance, to myself and to my friends and family. My mother asked, tentatively, if we really planned to stay together. “I know he’s not perfect,” I said to her. “But look how my life has changed since I’ve been with him!” I didn’t say that he drove me crazy and embarrassed me, that I wasn’t really attracted to him, that I was certain he had a crush on a friend of his and that he didn’t like my body. I said the same thing to my friends when they made little concerned faces at me about the relationship. “I know, I know, it’s not easy to see, but it works for me,” I told them. Then I saw his name on my phone and felt a pull of guilt that I didn’t want to answer it.

During the week between my return from LA and the day he broke up with me, I knew that I didn’t miss him. I was again plagued by guilt because I was so relieved we could go back to being apart. So what did I do? I texted him incessantly that I missed him. I would wake in the middle of the night with a start, a sudden anxiety about my guilt, and to assuage it I would text him: “I wish you were here.” Continuously telling him that I missed him seemed somehow to absolve me of not missing him at all.

I am grateful that he did what I could not and told me, over skype, that it didn’t make sense for us to stay together. I briefly and limply tried to convince him otherwise, and then I gave in. For one hour, I cried. Then I went to Whole Foods for my weekly groceries. I woke up the next day with more energy than I’d had in the entire 14 months we’d been together.

From my current vantage point, my behavior seems entirely insane. And yet, as Heidi Grant Halvorsen writes, such behavior is actually quite common. Why, if I was so sure so many times that he was not right for me in millions of ways, did I not just end it? Beyond that, why did I not even entertain the IDEA of ending it? “We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, instead of focusing on the costs of not moving on: more wasted time and effort, more unhappiness, and more missed opportunities,” she writes. It was exactly this way with me.

While I was with this boyfriend, I’d made significant gains in my creative life. I attributed these gains to him, because he’d encouraged me, and because I’d spent so much mental energy convincing myself and others that I needed him. I feared that losing him would set me back, that I’d lose steam, that I’d be lonely and unproductive. I didn’t think at all about what I’d gain: the chance to make it on my own, and even to find someone who was right for me.

As you might expect, my fears about my individual survival turned out to be unwarranted. The end of our relationship turned me into a happiness machine; I was boundless, working long days and staying up late to write, going out on weekends and feeling entirely good. And in the days since, I’ve met someone else — a relationship discovered through my happiness, not as a salvation from sadness. The things that are right in this person – that he not only supports me but understands where I’m at, that he is thoughtful and sweet to my family and friends, even simply that he wants to drink about the same amount as I do and go to sleep around the same time – make it all the more clear how wrong everything was in my last relationship. And how willing I was to overlook so much bad stuff if it meant I could avoid the pain of transition, and avoid admitting to a failure.

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