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The flawed reasoning behind bad relationships

People can stay in bad relationships based on flawed reasons, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal, conducted a series of experiments to determine how factors such as time and money affected the way people saw their relationships.

They found evidence of what is known as the “sunk cost fallacy”. This is a thought process which causes people to stay with something longer than they otherwise would because they have invested in it. An example can be watching an entire film you do not enjoy because you have already paid to see it. The research team found this reasoning also encouraged people to stay in unhappy relationships.

For the first experiment, 902 people were presented with a hypothetical relationship scenario. They were told they had become unhappy with their partner, had not had sex for a few months and would stay at work longer in order to avoid them. There were four versions of this scenario with the length of time, money and effort which had gone into the relationship as the varying factors.

The researchers found that participants who were told that they had put a lot of time and effort into their relationship were more likely to say they would stick with it. The same was true when a lot of money had been spent, for instance buying a house with the hypothetical partner.

In the second test, the researchers gave a group of 275 people a similar scenario, although this time half the participants were asked to respond as if they had been in the relationship for just one year, while the others were told it was ten years. On average, the second group said they would have stayed in that relationship for 294 days longer than those told it had only lasted a year.

The two experiments certainly appeared to indicate that “investments in terms of time, effort, and money make individuals more prone to stay and invest in a relationship in which they are unhappy” the researchers wrote, even though “the logical decision would be to finish the relationship, independently of the prior investments”.

Last year, a survey of more than 2,000 Britons found that most would rather stay in a bad relationship than confront their partner about what was bothering them.

The University of Minho study was published in the latest edition of the academic journal Current Psychology.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Douglas Milnes says:

    Is this really supposed to be something brand new? There are all kinds of things where people will keep putting in effort because of the effort they have expended up to that point.

    While ending unhappy relationships instead of working on them might be the way to go, the continuing push – including by posters in this blog – to apply the same to marriage is dismaying. If people who get married don’t like keeping to their promise of “till death do us part” then they should not get married. If they did make that kind of promise, they should be held to it.

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