Making yourself happy: The Relationship Choice

Change is scary, but everything will be OK…

In a recent post, we discussed always doing what you want to do. (Not in regards to morality: this does not mean you should deliberately harm others.) Below are some common mishaps people fall into where they have lost track of their original goal, why it happens, and what can be done about it…

The Relationship “Choice”

Bill has been dating his girlfriend for 18 months. The relationship started well, but lately she drives him crazy. Bills feels like she doesn’t listen and that she doesn’t entirely respect him.

What he should doWhatever increases his happiness the most. (Break up.)

What he does do: Ignores his overall happiness. (Stays in the relationship.)

Why does he do this? Primarily because humans are risk-averse; the thought of being in no relationship is worse than the thought of being in a bad relationship. Is this true though, or is it another case of your instinctive brain leading you astray?

There are plenty of other “good” reasons Bill chooses to say, such as the amount of time he has invested in the relationship. As a result he doesn’t want to simply “quit” on it. This is yet another logical fallacy– it’s a form of the Sunk Cost Fallacy — and it is another self-defeating trap people fall into.

Bill needs to ask himself what his purpose of being in a relationship is in the first place. For most people, the reasons can be summarized with “to make my life better — to make me happier.” So the simple question is, “Bill, does this relationship still make your life better?”

And here’s where it gets really interesting…

If we told Bill about the dynamics of his relationship 18 months ago, before it started, he likely wouldn’t have entered it.

She will be crazy? Won’t listen to me? Be totally disrespectful and drive me nuts? Why would I want THAT!?

Like most people, Bill wouldn’t. But like most people, Bill’s answer will change whether he is single or in a relationship. That’s because what Bill weighs as important will differ based on what he is currently used to. The “relationship perks” — safety, comfort, physical security, an emotional blanket, sexual reciprocity, etc. — will look different to Bill at different times in his life:

  • To Single Bill: relationship perks don’t sound particularly important. They aren’t given much weight in the mental checklist of pros and cons.
  • To Relationship Bill: relationship perks are given tremendous weight. He identifies strongly with them.

What people are used to or what they have will drastically change their feelings about those things. If you have a Ferrari, losing it would be terribly distressing. Waking up one morning and seeing an empty garage might elicit panic. If you never bought a Ferrari, waking up to an empty garage seems totally normal.

Yet, in both cases, you don’t have a Ferrari. And in both cases, if Bill evaluated being single he wouldn’t have the benefits of the relationship perks, yet 18 months later they “feel” more significant. He’s used to them, and his brain weighs that heavily in his decision-making.

He isn’t actually gaining anything from where he started, he’s just avoiding the loss of something new. Incidentally, this is how nicotine addiction works.

In other words, Bill has created an irrational recipe for his own unhappiness! He was happier being single and not having the relationship perks. Now, he judges the perks as being more important and he doesn’t want to give them up, even if they don’t really make him that happy overall. In essence, he’s forgotten that once he’ll be single, those perks won’t hold much value anymore.

Bills’ choice is self-defeating. His desire to avoid a loss (the relationship perks) causes him to entirely overlook (and forget) all the positives of his life before he was in a relationship. In terms of Net Happiness, it might look like this to him:

Relationship Bill’s Happiness Checklist 
Activity Happiness Units Result
Negative Relationship Aspects 200 Gain
Relationship Perks 250 Loss
Net -50

But he’s forgotten that being single (again) comes with it’s own perks. He’s forgotten all the good from his life before his relationship, and that he was happier (overall) then. The checklist should look like:

Single Bill’s Happiness Checklist 
Activity Happiness Units Result
Negative Relationship Aspects 200 Gain
Relationship Perks 250 Loss
Single Life 300 Gain
Net 250

The implications here are clear: Your predicament can warp your perspective. And when this happens, you’ve fallen into a trap like Bill, what you’re doing isn’t self-serving. It’s like eating your own leg for dinner because you (falsely) believed there was nothing in the fridge.

So how can you avoid this trap? How can you feel comfortable leaving a comfortable relationship that you’ve “identified” with for so long?

  1. Remember what your life was like before you were in the relationship.
    1. Was it horrible?
    2. How happy were you?
    3. What did you “identify” with then?
  2. Look around at others for evidence.
    1. What percent of people regret leaving bad relationships?
    2. Once they end the relationship and some time has passed, what percent of people look back and say “I made a terrible mistake! The perks were much better than the negatives of that relationship!”

You may have to ask your friends. Read some articles. Browse some internet forums. But if you are looking for reassurance that your brain is actually tricking you into unhappiness, look to the thousands and thousands of people who were in the trap and have since escaped…and what they have to say about it.

 Making yourself happy: The Relationship Choice

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