The sunk emotional costs fallacy

I recently went through a painful "breakup" which was really more of a failure to launch with someone who I met only once, but had 3 months of intense long-distance communication with beforehand. It was rare for me to get so hung up about a relationship - but it messed me up pretty good. More than relationships which were actually much more meaningful and had much more love and affection and joined lives.  I can't say I ever loved this person, but the end of our thing hurt more than many people I loved deeply... Why is this?

I've determined the reason for this is really less about the person (who is quite beautiful and intelligent and all of that), and more about the dynamic of dating people who play hot and cold to hold your attention, while not really caring for you or your feelings very deeply.

Trying to date someone who isn't clear about their intentions is like playing poker. In the beginning, they don't show you much interest.  It's fine, you don't know them, there are lots of fish in the sea. You send a few more texts, this is just throwing in 5 chips for the deal...

Then they start reciprocating and it's exciting.  Then they pull away again and you think "okay, maybe they don't like me as much" or "they are unsure of my feelings", then they come back and intensify and it feels like something real. You begin to talk intimately (or get intimate physically). You drop a 20 in the pot.

They pull away again and this time it hurts, so you reach out and communicate that you're not sure of their intentions.  They reassure you, and it feels good. But you start to question yourself.  Why am I always seeing them pulling away, but they say they are interested?  And the cycle keeps accelerating.  

Every time you give a little bit of your own needs up, you feel a little bit less because you believe what they are saying over how you are feeling.

Each one of these cycles is like raising the stakes in a poker game.  And after awhile, you're looking at the pot. The pot is huge.  You've invested so much emotionally - not because you've connected deeply, because you probably have not - but because you have overcome your pain and doubt and stayed in the game. You have delayed the grieving of each micro-rejection, each following gaslighting. Each time you do this, you double the pot, making it bigger and bigger, making it scarier and scarier to lose.

After awhile, you realize that you have a pair of twos, and even if you "win", which is highly unlikely, this person is really not someone who cares about you.  So there is no benefit in playing the hand.  You should fold.  Your friends know you should fold.  You know you should fold.  BUT THE POT IS SO BIG.  You keep playing because it seems insane to just give up after subjugating yourself by denying your instincts for so long.

The farther we stretch ourselves to override our instincts, the greater the confirmation bias that is developed - the more important it is to be right about the previous questionable decisions.

What is the lesson here?  The obvious one is to fold early.  But that's terrible advice.  It is lonely out there, and dating is terrible, and when you see someone who you really admire, it's very hard to let that go.  Even the slightest of reassurance will have you quickly taking your heart out of your chest and dropping in on top of the chips.  It happens to us all.  It just happened to me.  I don't know if I'll be wiser next time.

But I think next time, I will try to remember this: Play to win and bet big, but up the ante on them.  Give them an ultimatum around how you want to be treated and the type of relationship you want, and fucking stick to it.  Even though that will mean closing up early in many cases.  Every time you give up some of yourself to keep them around, you are making it less likely that you will ever find common ground even if it is possible.  So stand tall - you are worth it.  There is no percentage in finding companionship with someone who will always make your wonder if that companionship is real.

Note: Image stolen from  If you don't like it, tell me and I'll take it down. It's a cool image and I don't make money from this

Jacob Singh
CTO in residence at Sequoia Capital. Independent product and Engineering Coach Mediocre guitarist, singer, rock climber, point guard and baker Dedicated dad. American in New Delhi.
New Delhi