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Relationships

What Biles Can Teach Us About Leaving Unhappy Relationships

Lesson 2: Don't be tempted to stay by sunk costs.

Key points

  • Simone Biles showed bravery in the face of strong pressure, whereas fear can keep people in unhappy relationships.
  • Biles's investments could have prevented her from stepping away, just as people often stay in unhappy relationships because of sunk costs.
  • What would happen if, like Biles, people resisted strong pressures and broke free of the inertia of unhappy relationships?

This week, Simone Biles did the incredible. With the world watching and having invested years in preparation for the Olympics competition, Biles said "no." She stopped a train in motion and stepped away.

In a space where most people would feel they had no choice, Biles saw that she did. She actively chose to prioritize her well-being rather than risk her physical safety (or her team's chance at winning a medal). In other words, she trusted herself, saw the bigger picture, and left.

The feeling of mounting investment and a train in motion is familiar not only to athletes but also to people in ongoing unsatisfying relationships. The parallels include the strong situational and contextual forces that shape both athletes’ and romantic partners’ behaviors. Moving forward in time, it's often easiest to do what is seemingly expected from us.

When we're in a relationship, particularly one defined by high commitment (marriage, cohabitation), the expectation is that it will keep going. The world might not be watching, but people’s family, friends, and children are; our initial plans might not include winning the gold, but they very well might be to stay in a specific relationship for the long haul.

But what if, just like Biles knew she should not compete, we know, deeply and profoundly, that our relationship isn't working? Can we leave too?

Lesson 1: Be brave in your relationship decisions.

It took guts for Biles to stop mid-competition. It also takes guts to leave an unsatisfying relationship.

Unsatisfying relationships have one thing going for them: They're known. We know our conflicts or our disappointments; we know when our needs will and won't be met; we know the loneliness and have found ways to live with it.

For many people, particularly individuals who are high in attachment anxiety, the stability of a relationship—even an unsatisfying one—may feel safer than a vastly uncertain future outside of that relationship. Evidence supports the idea that anxious individuals who are afraid of being alone, which is linked to fear of change, are more likely to remain in unsatisfying relationships (George, Hart, & Rholes, 2020). In other words, fear often guides our lack of agency in moving out of a mediocre relationship.

Lesson 2: Don't let sunk costs define your future.

Biles invested so much to prepare for the Olympics. In channeling her time and energy towards gymnastics, she necessarily sacrificed whatever she would otherwise have been doing with her life.

Likewise, people invest heavily in their relationships. They give years of their lives to developing a specific partnership; they often tie their money and property to another person; they disclose personal histories and weave partners into their existing social worlds. With only one life to live, people highly invested in their unsatisfying relationships might feel like the costs are too high (they would lose so much) if they left.

Consistent with this idea, relationship stability is not a direct result of relationship satisfaction (Rusbult et al., 1980). Whether we stay or leave a relationship is also a function of how much we have invested in our relationships and how we evaluate the other options we might have (e.g., alternative partners, being single). People highly invested in their relationships might stay, even if they are unhappy.

Similarly, the more people perceive that they've given to a relationship, the more they are willing to lean in and invest more, even when it's not a happy or satisfying relationship (Rego et al., 2018). With the future unwritten and past investments impossible to get back, rather than focusing on sunk costs, people might be better off following Biles's lead and stepping away.

Lesson 3: Resist inertia.

Biles felt the strong pull towards competing; yet, she changed the direction of the day in a way many of us would not have done. For relationships as well, "staying the course" is generally easier than changing the course.

Research on the inertia effect shows that people in cohabitating relationships often "slide" into marriage, rather than "deciding" to get married, a lack of intentionality that is linked to a greater chance of unhappiness and divorce down the road (Stanley et al., 2006). In other words, the relationship isn't the greatest fit, but people stick with it because it's already happening. The momentum of moving in together can build over time: People integrate their lives, buying furniture and adopting pets. The investments keep increasing. Cohabitation sometimes leads to a formal marriage commitment when—had couples not been living together—they might have broken up.

What's next?

Biles, like the rest of us, can't know for sure what the future holds. We do know that she could have competed: She'd have risked serious injury, but this is what athletes have done in the past on the world stage (remember Kerri Strug?). Instead, Biles prioritized her well-being, trusted herself, and showed hope for the future. The future is still bright for Biles because of her decision.

Likewise, in mediocre relationships, we know we can stay and endure. But what if we prioritize our well-being, trust ourselves, and have hope for a brighter future?

References

George, T., Hart, J., & Rholes, W. S. (2020). Remaining in unhappy relationships: The roles of attachment anxiety and fear of change. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(5), 1626-1633.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family relations, 55(4), 499-509.

Rego, S., Arantes, J., & Magalhães, P. (2018). Is there a sunk cost effect in committed relationships?. Current Psychology, 37(3), 508-519.

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