The Flawed Psychological Bias That Keeps You With The Wrong Person
One of the worst things about breaking up isn’t just losing someone. It’s the terrifying thought: what if I never find someone who makes me feel the same?
What if he is totally irreplaceable??
He has a masters degree and he’s good in bed? He loves to spend time with family and he owns a successful company? He’s a brilliant artist and he keeps his apartment tidy, does the dishes, and knows how to cook?
The problem with finding someone unique is the feeling that we can never find that person again.
And the scary part is, that’s probably true.
Yes, the specific person can’t be replaced. But we certainly can experience the same intensity of love and even greater fulfilment with someone else.
Yet time and time again I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t know if I should end it…”, even when they aren’t getting their deepest needs met, be it for love, loyalty, commitment, or even just basic human kindness.
The Bias That Makes Us Scared To Let Go
The reasons people stay in bad relationships are complex: Bad models from parents, fear of abandonment, a lack of fulfilment in other areas of life, need for attention and validation – these are all factors that can make it difficult to cut loose and face the prospect of being single again.
But one big factor that makes it even harder is a psychological concept known as loss aversion.
This is described by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast And Slow, as our brain’s tendency to focus in any given gamble on what we may lose, rather than what we could gain.
When you initiate a break up, your brain can’t process the rational idea: “This will make room for someone who makes me happier and fulfils my needs”.
Instead, you are gripped by a terror of having made the wrong decision, of having lost the potential love of your life, of having a gaping hole in your heart where your partner used to be and wondering how you’re going to fill it.
This is all IRRATIONAL.
- If your days are filled with anxiety and fear that he’s not really committed…there is someone who won’t make you feel so uncertain.
- If your days are filled with conversations with your girlfriends about how you’re not really that sexually attracted to him and don’t feel the same passion…there is a guy out there who will stoke those embers (and be a decent person as well).
- If you live with the terrible feeling that you have radically different life plans and values about family, kids, and marriage….there is a guy who will be MUCH more aligned with your desired future.
These are areas where compromises are extremely dangerous and completely unnecessary, yet people often make them purely because they are scared to let go of what they already have.
The Formula For Stopping Loss Aversion
Many people I believe get this the wrong way around. They are very liberal in giving their heart to someone at the outset, and extremely cautious when it comes to breaking off a bad thing.
When we are single…we are not loss averse enough. We are too relaxed about giving our time and emotion to people whom we know aren’t right for us.
When we are in a relationship…we are too loss averse. We over-estimate how long the pain of the breakup will last, and underrate our ability to find love with someone who will give us what we really need.
If we’re already in a miserable situation: one that doesn’t fulfil our needs and that causes us daily anxiety, endless brooding conversations with friends, and sleepless nights wondering if things will ever change, then we really only have a great deal to gain by letting it go.
So here are some easy ways to avoid this bias when deciding whether not to let go:
- Bring the gains to the front of your mind – constantly remind yourself of the years of well-being you would have being in a relationship that really makes you feel full and happy, and then compare it to the difficulties/arguments/frustration you’re currently having.
- Use past evidence to ease your decision -Remind yourself that many people (including probably yourself) go through the worst heartaches and still find love again. Reduce how bad the supposed loss is in your mind. Yes, the pain at first will be acute and sharp, but it will get less and less, and then you will be free to pursue the right thing.
- Make being single incredible – being alone and content is better than being in an unhappy relationship. As I’ve argued before, we have to reframe what being “alone” and single means. It means possibility. It means getting to live your passions unapologetically. It means bundles of free time to have adventures and sample different lifestyles. It means living on your terms.
As a final word: of course, you don’t always know right away what kind of relationship you’re looking for. And that’s part of the dating process: shopping around, falling for different people, learning your likes and dislikes.
While you should date with some criteria in mind of who you’re looking for (more about that here), it definitely pays to allow for some surprise as well.
Which makes the formulation: be open-minded about whom the right person is, but be decisive and cut loose once you know they’re the wrong person.