On sunk costs and shitty marriages

Hi Coke, as I edge closer to 30 and more of my friends are starting to settle down, I’m starting to notice a weird pattern among some. There’s been quite a few instances where friends who have been in serious relationships with their partners for 5+ years, many for a decade, seem to part ways shortly after getting hitched. They are happy, in love, dedicated, super enthusiastic about their wedding and then they get married and suddenly something seems to crack and they split up very shortly thereafter. In most cases it’s happened in much less than a year after the wedding. It’s so weird. They’ve all lived together for multiple years, had pets together for years, and all that grown up shit but somehow signing a piece of paper changes things? I don’t understand. What’s different? Thanks in advance for your insight!


You’re looking at it all wrong. It’s not the piece of paper that changes things. The piece of paper and the marriage that it represents are merely symptoms of the larger problem, which is that by and large, human beings are terrible at making rational decisions where emotions are involved, and people rarely have the self-discipline to cut their losses and walk away.

The phenomenon that you’ve observed is a prime example of something called the “sunk-cost fallacy” applied to relationships. The sunk-cost fallacy is faulty reasoning that further investment (i.e. marriage) is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested (i.e. time, energy, and a sizable chunk of their youth) will be lost otherwise, not taking into consideration the overall losses involved in further investment (i.e. the emotional and financial misery of the inevitable divorce.)

People in their late twenties who’ve spent years in long-term relationships are faced with increasing pressure from social systems to conform to the proper stage of life transitions. Everyone and everything (often times even their own biology) are constantly nagging them to settle down, get married, start breeding, etc., and so they fall prey to this faulty reasoning and decide to plow through to the next stage of life regardless of whether their relationship is healthy.

You’ve got a shit-ton of aging Millennials limping along in stale relationships who don’t know any better because they’ve spent the last half-decade having the same arguments in the same restaurants and then going home and having the same sex with the same person, and rather than disappoint their parents by going through the temporary pain of a much needed break-up, they throw a Hail Mary pass with the mother of all major life decisions and decide to get married. Fuck it. Why not? What’s the worst that could happen? So they forge ahead with big smiles.

Of course they’re super enthusiastic about getting married — they have to be. They’re on a year long roller-coaster ride of planning a wedding. Sure, they’re secretly terrified of their relationship’s mediocrity, but all that existential angst gets hurled to the edges as they start doing loops. With a little denial and a decent bachelorette party, they can almost convince themselves that everything is going to be all right. For a good long while they get to soak up all that positive reinforcement from friends and family. They get to be the center of attention, and they get to feel all grown-up. Eventually the big day comes. They say a few magic words, they cut a cake, and then suddenly all the fun stuff stops.

I don’t have to tell you what happens next. You’ve seen it. Within a few months the reality of “til death do us part” comes along and slaps them in the face like a big wet dick. They realize they’re actually pretty miserable, and then it finally dawns on them that they don’t actually have to be together.

Basically, the marriage itself is just an extended director’s cut of their break-up. It’s gross, I know, but we’re flawed creatures in a flawed system. This is just one of those things that happens.


64 thoughts on “On sunk costs and shitty marriages

  1. VeryOn says:

    Out of curiosity, to the original poster I ask, do you see the more expensive weddings as lasting less time?
    I read an article asserting that, and with that in mind I would guess you’re in a more privileged income bracket.

    • grouch says:

      If anything, I’d expect the expensive ones (relative to what they have the means to spend) as lasting longer. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force, and it’s also a huge sunk cost.

      • Strangely Rational says:

        I’d say the opposite precisely because of the sunk cost of the wedding. Once you’ve put that much non-recoverable money into it and you have the pressure of parents who have paid some or all of that plus all the guests flying in with nonrefundable airline tickets and a sea of expensive gifts, you’re less likely to cancel if you realize prior to your wedding day that you really don’t want to go through with it.

        Of course, it’s difficult to back out of any wedding, but the loss and the potential for a lot of people getting very angry at you is greater with an expensive wedding. So people go through with it just because they’ve already invested so much. I watched that happen to a friend of mine who filed for divorce I believe three months after the wedding. She had expressed extreme reservations beforehand, but she was too afraid of the repercussions.

        Once the wedding’s over, everyone’s gotten what they paid for, so that pressure is mostly off. Splitting up a few months in will be quieter, and from a public humiliation standpoint, you’re on about the same level as any couple wanting to divorce regardless of the cost of the wedding.

        And even if they genuinely wanted to marry, you have the financial stress factor if the couple had to go into a lot of debt to pay for a more lavish wedding than they could afford. Expensive purchases carry greater potential for conflict, and behind every expensive wedding, you’re likely to find at least one partner pissed off about the other’s decisions. And they’re going to be even more pissed off when they have to live with the reality of having to give up things they want to pay bills they didn’t agree with at the time.

    • Lotcal says:

      Family lawyer here – I have observed the opposite of your hypothesis. The more people spend, the shorter the marriage (the partied are also more likely to be complete idiots the more they spend). One couple broke up after one day (big fight at wedding reception) – their wedding cost $100k+.

      • VeryOn says:

        That was my premise. As supported by the article and your observation. Validated.
        Of course you may have meant to reply to grouch.
        One minus for no forum.

  2. Roie says:

    “Basically, the marriage itself is just an extended director’s cut of their break-up.”

    This made me laugh in a dry-as-fuck meeting about a purchasing system. I need a new goddamn job.

  3. Sharona says:


    Was in a relationship for 6.5 years, married for 3. All of what she says is true.

    Subsequently, happily single for a long time, now happily dating a wonderful guy and taking our sweet-ass time and not conforming to shit.

    Marriage is just one of those things that happens…and a social construct. You don’t have to adhere to it. Your relationship doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. If you can peacefully exist with yourself and also coexist with someone who will let you exist with yourself, you don’t really require much else.

  4. Something I’ve been wondering about regarding this exact phenomenon: all “should have broken up instead of getting married” situations aside, since the majority of women do still change their names when they marry, I’ve always wondered if the problem that arises “after the papers are signed” is really a crisis of identity. If, potentially, there is a subconscious affect to assuming a new name, and the backlash from that permeates an otherwise healthy relationship–even after years of living together before marriage, in some cases.


  5. Elsie says:

    More power to the kids then. My tail-end-baby-boomer generation started with marriage and then all too often expected additional ​children to renew a stale relationship.

  6. Soooooo says:

    I think it’s better to be an ex wife than a baby mama* for life. From what I can see, women who were once married, remarry easier. Women with kids and were never married, meet men who continue the pattern. No facts, just from what I can see. Again, I’m black and from the hood so I see things differently from u guys.

    *has been a baby mama

  7. Name says:

    Would you say this happens to everyone? In all cases? What about the folks who get married for whatever reason and open up their relationship ?

    • Chris says:

      It’s a generalization, not covering 100% of people. Obviously there are exceptions in large numbers, but small percentages, just like how “boys are like this and girls are like this,” and “white people be like…”

      My wife and I have been married 12.5 years. We recognize the ways our marriage has changed, will change, and must change, but we’re happy to have each other as partners, and we’re exclusive. I don’t foresee us ever choosing to open the relationship sexually. There are ruts we’ve fallen into here and there, but we’ve successfully gotten out of them, which is crucial to do because sex is too important to let get boring.

  8. Monochromicorn says:

    There should be a high school class that covers how to break up with people.

    I know so many people that fell in love at ~ 20 and just married that person because … Idk …. they didn’t know what else to do.

    It really speaks to Americans’ mental disfunction that so few people know how to choose happiness in relationships.

  9. Sunk says:

    I’m in the preamble of this situation now. Every time I think about leaving the nice, good-looking, stable man I am with I have a melt-down at the sunk costs. The years I have invested in him and us… But it isn’t right, and at some point I am going to have to toughen up and leave. I just don’t know how (we live together in the UK – I am Australian).

    • Chris says:

      You gotta go if you’re just hanging. If not for yourself (though you’ll be glad you did) then for him. He deserves to move on, too.

      Living together makes it messy, but it’s love; it’s gonna get messy.

      You might have some sunk costs, but you’re costing yourself valuable time, too. Time to recover, time to reset, time you can’t get back.

    • ROO says:

      I was literally in this situation, too (minus being Australian living in together in the UK – we both were from the UK). It took me maybe a whole year (after living together for a year; we were together just shy of 8 years) to actually pluck up the courage and leave. Couldn’t help think about the time, money, youth, etc. Honestly, it’s the best thing I did for both of us. It sucked, it really sucked, but it had to be done.

  10. HER says:

    WOW. I read this by chance (wasn’t sure Coke would bless us with two posts so close together) while waiting for a call from my boyfriend who was questioning the current state of our relationship.

    Rather than listing to him all the *sunk costs* in an attempt to justify making it work, I realized I was not being properly fulfilled emotionally, mentally, or physically and ended it. Today. It was simply out of habit and ease that we even stayed together this long.

    I don’t know how you do it, Coke, but damn I’m glad you do. Thanks.

  11. FirstTimeCommenter says:

    This is 100% true! I know people that told me outright the day before the wedding they didn’t want to marry this person, but you know “Sunk costs” (our family is here; everything is paid for; we live together; we’re ready for babies; etc.)… so they just go through the motions.

    PS I signed in once a “FirstTimeCommenter”… but now it’s, like, third time commenter. I’m keeping the name though.

    • Chris says:

      You’re kicking ass with the comments, man. Keep it up.

      Yeah, a neighbor growing up called off her wedding the day-of. People were saying how she should have just gone through with it. I mean, come on, they bought the cake and everything! And her dress. And people bought plane tickets.

      The best thing she did for that guy was not marry him.

  12. Monochromicorn says:

    Another thought: I disagree with coke that these relationships are necessarily unhealthy. People are in them and don’t want to leave them because they are atleast somewhat healthy, besides the fact that its just “over”. It can be hard to leave healthy functionality, mutual respect, and everything good on paper, when there is no specific reason why it’s just not working for you any longer.

    • VeryOn says:

      The fact that they self destruct after the marriage is a pretty good sign that they were unhealthy. It took a major change in order to resolve the conflict. The range of reasons is nearly identical to the number of relationships. And there is positively no way for us to judge these hypothetical train wrecks. For any relationship you imagine to be “good enough” we can imagine one that isn’t.

      It’s bad enough that it took what should have been a life affirming ritual of togetherness to make them realize they were already apart or that it could not continue.

      In fact it’s kind of gross to consider they would have limped along in a semi functional state had they not resolved it by getting married and breaking apart. I will tell you what I believe the prime reason they determinedly stagger along…dependence. Ick.

      Ultimately the people in the relationship have their own opinion of how healthy it is. And they aren’t necessarily right.

  13. khiiii says:

    I’m in a social group that does this – of 4 close friends who got married in the past few years, only one is still married. All long relationships, all lived together before marriage….all definitely had problems but optimistically decided they could work through them. Optimism isn’t a guarantee, I guess.

    Been in a long relationship myself but am in no rush to cave to social pressure about getting married. We want a party, but we’re not in a ideal place professionally to put the effort into planning a GOOD party, and the relationship is genuinely great in all the important ways in the meantime. It’ll keep!

  14. NotSofia says:

    This post was terrifying at first until I realised the point isn’t “most marriages fail” but “you don’t have to get married”. Felt relief after that.

  15. Chalkman says:

    I don’t understand why any self-actualized adult would change their name when they got married, unless they had a bad last name like “Cockburn”. It reeks too “Handsmaid Tale” for me….

    • Chris says:

      An unfortunate name is a legit reason to just change it, regardless of marriage.

      Not everyone is so keen on their family. My wife saw her father for the first time since childhood only a year ago. It was a good time, but there’s no legacy to carry forth, and not even any memories. This past Christmas was the first one where our kids received gifts from him – $25 Target gift cards. I’d have loved for the girls to use them for something fun, but I had nearly no money and guests coming over for brunch, so I took the $100 in gift cards instead of my Visa, went to the store, and Grandpa paid for us to have a nice time. Perhaps if he’d been there for my wife in any of the previous 32 years they could have bought LEGOs or Minecraft t-shirts, but that’s not the situation, and his name isn’t living on through her.

  16. Chris says:

    Enjoy some seriously sunk costs.

    She catches him with a wife, and when he says after all this time he never told her (when she threatens his job) because he’s getting a divorce she’s asked if she’s really buying any of it.

    She says, “well I don’t want to lose him.” And then, “he gonna be all mine.”

    So sad it’s hilarious.

  17. Jessica Sen says:

    The main reason I would not be able to get married is boredom. Many people find it comforting when they can predict what someone is going to say next, what they’re thinking, what they will do. I find that fucking boring. Whenever I get close to that stage with a partner (usually within a year), it’s like a switch is suddenly flicked and I lose interest completely in the relationship. I have never been interested in a relationship beyond a year, and can’t imagine what it would be like to live with the same person for life. It’s my worst nightmare.

    My boredom is chronic and intense, though. It permeates all levels of my life. I don’t meet most of my friends because I find them boring. It’s even worse when they are perfectly nice people but I just can’t keep my interest when I’m in their company. I have considered the possibility that I am boring, but there are certain (very few) people who spark me and get me into an almost manic state when they show their intelligence (usually emotional intelligence). When I’m with people who read widely and are interested in a variety of topics, I don’t get bored. The trouble is, I currently live in a bad situation (hometown with my parents- medical issues) where the culture is that people are only concerned about mundane things like money, work and practical affairs. A typical conversation might consist of a recipe for a new dish, how much sneakers cost, how expensive parking in the city has become. When I’m with my parents, as much as I love them, it’s a nightmare. They repeat the same comments and jokes all the time. When we are in the car, and we pass someone’s house, they comment “So-and-so lives here (or used to live here)” – everytime we pass the same place! I feel like I’m stuck in a really bad nightmare, a constant loop.

    I’ve recently been diagnosed with ADHD, and my psychiatrist says that because I’m smart the boredom is much worse. 90% of media I consume bores me, including Oscar nominated movies and TV shows people hail. I’ve had unserious but repetitive musings that it’s a good thing I don’t have a gun, because I could on impulse, out of frustration blow my brains out, out of sheer boredom.

    Does anyone have suggestions on how to lead a highly stimulating life and sustain it that way? I’m into film, teaching, writing and talking to strangers. I need to find a solution to my boredom without getting into trouble (getting arrested, being sent to hospitals, getting dead drunk).

    • Gettie says:

      As someone who lives with their parents still due to circumstances that can’t at the moment be changed, I feel you! The broken record of stale anecdotes and tired commentary could feel welcomed if it wasn’t everyday we had to listen to it.

      I found that part of the reason I was depressed with living at home still was because I felt like my self-development was stagnant. I wasn’t challenging myself because I was stuck in the same routine with the same people that kept making me feel the same way.

      What helped me was weightlifting.. Picking this up was a way to make a daily investment into myself that changed my perception of my stagnant lifestyle. My mind needed something else to occupy it, and the ritualistic self-improvement was beneficial in centering me and curbing my anxiety.

      Why don’t you try to learn a new skill? Take some film theory courses at a local college, learn a new language or try your hand at something you don’t know much about – permaculture, woodworking, fitness, yoga, musical instruments, making jewelry, reselling vintage clothing.

      Channel your extra energy into something that builds you up, otherwise it will stagnate into something that weighs you down.

    • Monochromicorn says:

      I feel like a fool for responding to this. But oh well.

      On one level, I get you. Going home and talking to my family (including extended family) is like putting forks in my eyes. It blows my mind how they can have endless inane conversations, especially about the locations of things. e.g. That new Applebee’s is on county road x, or is it county road y, you know where they used to have the used car dealership, or is it next the marathon station? Oh your last name is Aitkin? I knew some Aitkins once, up in Bobstown and some in Marthaville, its right next to the state reserve. etc. etc. etc. forever and ever. When I was younger it made me so crazy that I started writing it all down. I have files upon files of me mimicking their conversations in some weird way of trying to deal with how boring it all was and how bored I was all the damn time. It made me mad, arrogant and weirdly rebellious, and I had a very low opinion of most people for a long time.

      And then I left.

      The world is full of fascinating things, people, and places, and there are plenty of challenging activities. Could you change health outcomes in a low income neighborhood? Put a rocket in space? Write something for publication? Be vulnerable enough to fall in love? Achieve self-awareness? Run for office? Sell a painting? Organize a rally? Stop the zombie apocalypse? There are million challenging things for a smart person to do.

      Get well. Leave. Find your people. Stop acting like life has to entertain you. Do something difficult that brings you purpose or happiness or even just a sense of productivity.

      And when you go back to visit your parents you won’t have so much contempt for them. You’ll feel like an anthropologist visiting Trobriand Islanders; it almost becomes interesting again.

      • WhoAmI says:

        The funniest part of any family meeting is rediscovering how everyone is. Then it all becomes unbearable as you realize this is why you don’t come as often as you say you will. But the first couple hours are fun still !

      • Jessica Sen says:

        I can’t just bloody leave. I wish I could. My parents have confiscated my passport and put it in a safe. The last time I tried to get them to return my passport, I called the police. I’m a legal adult (28) and they are illegally withholding my property. Instead, the police did nothing (my hometown sucks), and even berated me for not appreciating my parents and calling the cops on them. Later, my parents called the ambulance and had me compulsorily admitted to a mental hospital, where they pumped me full of shitty drugs and made me even more depressed and traumatised. There, I was abused by a nurse (I had massive bruises on my arm from her twisting my arm) and restrained by numerous sadistic people to the point where I felt like I was being raped. I’m worse off after the hospital stay. And now I’m stuck here, in my parents’ house, not able to get out. This is the first time in my life I’ve started to have seriously suicidal thoughts. I just feel so trapped. And no, I don’t think that life has to entertain me, I just can’t entertain myself because I’m fucking depressed. And no, I don’t have contempt for my parents. I respect them, but I have contempt for my situation and environment.

        • Nina says:

          Report your passport as lost or stolen. Are you in the US? Call the Department of State at (877) 487-2778 or mail in the form for lost/stolen passports. Calling might be the better option. Can you have the replacement mailed to a friend’s house?

        • RocketGrunt says:

          Based on my personal experience, I highly recommend seeing a counselor. When I was depressed and having conflict with my parents, having a mental health professional who heard me out on every issue and who was in my corner made a world of difference.

          I think the best way to combat the boredom/depression combo is to create something. It doesn’t matter what. Just put your mind and heart and soul into something and have a tangible result of your work.

          As for people boring you, maybe there’s a different way you can approach your interactions in general. It’s not just about conversation topics. Get to know people on a deep, meaningful level. Instead of looking for people to hold your interest, look for people to connect with. Everyone is a fascinating character with their own backstory and thoughts and emotions and experiences. Just because their small talk bores you doesn’t mean they’re not a complex person with a crazy story. Be the kind of person who people want to share with rather than the person who secretly resents them for not being entertaining enough.

        • Monochromicorn says:

          You don’t need to leave the country to leave. It’s pretty clear you have contempt for people – regardless of you parents – from the way you think everyone is so boring.

    • Chris says:

      Boredom is the reason I change jobs just about every year. On the ADHD, it’s related. I was diagnosed with trauma-induced ADD (no shit, I caught ADD) as a result of my time in the Marine Corps. You’re obviously intelligent, so you’re going to be fine.

      Marriage is not the answer to much of anything anyway, except wanting to be married. I prefer being married, but fuck it if it’s not for you. Being single has tons of advantages, too.

  18. Jessica Sen says:

    Thought experiment. Let’s take all the Coquette readers (especially the regulars on the forum) and put them in a bar together. What would happen? What would we talk about? Would there be more concurrence or arguments?

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