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When Love Is Blind

How "loss aversion" makes people tolerate dealbreakers.

Key points

  • Love can make us blind to toxic aspects of our intimate relationships.
  • Loss aversion leads us to put up with relationship deal breakers and rationalize them.
  • We must choose self-respect over loss aversion to get out of a toxic relationship.

It’s not totally a bad thing that love is blind. Love is often based on idealization. In the early phases of falling in love, you put your partner on a pedestal and imagine that they are the most perfect person in the world, at least for you. Even after the honeymoon phase of a relationship, we want to think the best of our partners. We love our partners despite their imperfections because we believe their good qualities far outweigh their bad qualities. And maybe over time, our partners’ bad qualities will be fixed or outgrown as our partners learn to live up to their full potential.

Accepting our partners’ imperfections, warts and all, appears to be an essential ingredient of successful long-term relationships. A relationship isn’t going to work if your partner is treated as a permanent fixer-upper who will never be good enough, no matter what they do to make you happy. The question arises as to just what is good enough in a long-term relationship. Are there certain imperfections that you shouldn’t have to accept in a long-term relationship that must be fixed to your liking, or you should get out rather than settle?

Necessities, luxuries, and deal breakers

Relationship scientists have distinguished between necessities, luxuries, and deal breakers when it comes to our preferences in picking a romantic partner. A necessity might be some minimum standard of good looks or sexual chemistry. A luxury might be needing a partner who is the sexiest person you’ve ever met. A deal breaker might be someone with whom you feel zero sexual chemistry. We might be too picky if we’re holding out for luxuries when our partner provides all the essential necessities. But we might be settling if our love makes us blind to the deal breakers in the relationship, and we aren’t getting the essential necessities we need for the relationship to be truly good enough.

The major deal breakers are infidelity, alcohol or substance abuse, physical, emotional, or verbal abuse, and failure to contribute to family finances. These are frequently cited reasons for divorce or marital dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, many people live with relationship deal breakers despite their unhappiness with these behaviors. They remain blind to these problems, see them but minimize them, remain hopeful that such behaviors will change over time if they keep working on it, and make constant threats of ending the relationship, hoping to motivate their recalcitrant partner to change their ways.

The price of living with deal breakers

Living with deal breakers and rationalizing them can extract a high emotional cost. You can’t feel securely attached to someone who cheats on you, mistreats you, doesn’t financially support you, and loves their alcohol and drugs more than they love you. It’s not good for your self-respect if you settle for this sort of treatment day in and day out without any end in sight.

You might begin to suffer depression, panic attacks, and angry outbursts that seem to erupt from nowhere. Why would anybody put up with this stuff by trying to tune it out and rationalize it? Yet many people do.

The problem of loss aversion

We put up with this stuff and make excuses for our partners’ unacceptable behavior because we just can’t bear the thought of ending the relationship. We’ve put our heart and soul into this relationship, and it breaks our heart to sadly acknowledge that the relationship may be a lost cause. Denial kicks in, and we heroically try to save the relationship, though it may be a losing battle.

Ironically, once our tragically flawed partners perceive that we can’t bear to walk away from a toxic relationship and that our threats of leaving are just bluffing, they realize that they can hold on to the relationship forever without ever having to change their ways. It’s only when our partners see that we are truly weaning ourselves from a toxic relationship and becoming more independent from them that they might be motivated to change if they can change.

Choosing self-respect over loss aversion

We free ourselves from toxic relationships once we overcome our loss aversion. Once we choose our own self-respect over our attachment to our irreparably flawed partners, we become capable of leaving a bad relationship without looking back and without regrets. On a certain level, it’s a relief to finally extricate oneself from a toxic relationship. We are free at last. Yet it is also horribly sad.

All the dreams we had of what the relationship could have been must be mourned as not meant to be. We must let go of the sense of failure that we couldn’t make a toxic relationship work. We must let go of the sense of unlovability that we didn’t deserve to be treated any better than what we got. We must convince ourselves that we are better off on our own and that we deserve to do better and can do better in the future. We must trust that we will choose more wisely in the future. All these emotional adjustments are a tall order and take time.

Grieving a failed relationship can’t be rushed but must be painfully endured. Yet it is an endurance test that doesn’t last forever. And when it finally ends, and you come out the other side, you are free to live your life with dignity and hold out for someone who treats you the way you deserve to be treated.

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Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.