By Amy Alkon
Q: Two of my girlfriends just got divorced. Both recently admitted to me that they knew they shouldn’t have gotten married at the time but did anyway. Just this weekend, another friend—married for only a year and fighting bitterly with her husband—also said she knew she was making a mistake before her wedding. Can you explain why anyone would go through with something as serious and binding as marriage if they have reservations?—Confused
A: Consider that in most areas of life, when you’re making a colossal mistake, nobody is all, “Hey, how about a coronation-style party, a Caribbean cruise and a brand-new blender?”
But it isn’t just the allure of the star treatment and wedding swag that leads somebody to shove their doubts aside and proceed down the aisle. Other influences include parental pressure, having lots of married or marrying friends, being sick of dating and feeling really bad about guests with nonrefundable airline tickets. There’s also the notion that “marriage takes work”—meaning you can just put in a little emotional elbow grease and you’ll stop hating your spouse for being cheap, bad in bed and chewing like a squirrel.
However, it also helps to look at how we make decisions—and how much of our reasoning would more accurately be called “emotioning.” We have a powerful aversion to loss and to admitting we were wrong, and this can cause us to succumb to the “sunk cost effect.” Sunk costs are investments we’ve already made—of time, money or effort. The “sunk cost effect” is decision researcher Hal Arkes’ term for our tendency to—irrationally, ego-servingly—keep throwing time, money or effort into something based on what we’ve already put in.
A way to avoid the sunk cost trap is through what psychologists call “prefactual thinking”—thinking out the possible outcomes before you commit to some risky course of action. Basically, you play the role of a pessimistic accountant.
But don’t just imagine all of the awful things that could happen. Write out a list—a detailed list. Making potential losses concrete like this helps you weigh current costs against the future ones. This, in turn, could help you admit that you and your not-entirely-beloved might have a real shot at happily ever after—if only the one of you in the big white dress would bolt out the fire exit instead of walking down the aisle.
Q: I’m a 32-year-old guy using dating apps. I was in a long-term relationship that ended badly, and I’m not ready for anything serious right now. I get that many women are ultimately looking for a relationship. I don’t want to ghost them if they start getting attached, but saying from the get-go that I just want something casual seems rude and a bit presumptuous.—Conflicted
A: Not everybody likes to spoon after sex. You like to slip out of the house without being noticed.
It isn’t presumptuous to explain “from the get-go” that you aren’t ready for anything serious; it’s the right thing to do. Lay that out in your online profile (or at least in your first conversation) so women are clear that you’re an aspiring sexfriend, not an aspiring boyfriend. Consider, however, that research by anthropologist John Marshall Townsend finds that even women who are sure that casual sex is all they’re looking for can get clingy afterward—to their great surprise.
Townsend explains that women’s emotions evolved to “act as an alarm system that urges women to test and evaluate investment and remedy deficiencies even when they try to be indifferent to investment.”
Ghosting—just disappearing on somebody you’re dating, with no explanation—is dignity-shredding. If a woman does end up wanting more than you can give, you need to do the adult thing and tell her that you’re ending it. Sure, that’ll be seriously uncomfortable for both of you. But keep in mind that bad news is usually the road to recovery, while no news is the road to randomly running into a woman everywhere, including your shower.