“Should I be miserable, or slightly less miserable?”: The Framing Problem

A great letter about an all-too-common issue: do you stay in a mediocre relationship, or stick around to acknowledge your partner’s efforts at self-improvement, in hope that things maaaybe get better:

Dear Dr Ali — My on/off partner of 4.5 years (with breaks) has a very avoidant attachment style, manifesting through extreme workaholic behaviour, using work to put distance between us. His work is stressful which exacerbates the issues. I have left the relationship twice. I am generally secure, with a very close, supportive family and friends network, but under this type of stress I become quite anxious. I’ve left whenever I realised I was persistently unhappy and ultimately feel alone within the relationship.

We have an 8 year relationship as creative partners and are currently still working together (sporadically, not everyday). Our working relationship is great, I’d say because he feels safe and not threatened by intimacy. We are always happy to see each other.

Both times I have left, he has reached out to try again. This time he started therapy to address these problems and in a few months there has been a significant acknowledgement of issues but no change so far. We love each other but I am worried that his underlying issues are so deep, he will never be able to commit to a relationship in a way that will make us both happy.

Do you think it is possible for a strongly avoidant person to smooth off those edges and feel happy and fulfilled in a relationship rather than trapped and panicky (especially during the stressful times in life)? Ages are 38 and 40. Thanks, Cleo

This kind of question comes up a lot, and it’s an example of what’s called the framing problem. See, Cleo, the correct question here is not “Can this person who has been making me feel anxious, unhappy and alone for 4.5 years with whom I’ve already broken up twice suddenly change and become the warm, caring person who fulfills all my relationship needs for the next umpteen years?” but rather, “Why am I putting up with this shit?” The real choice is between the mediocre-to-toxic relationship you’re having right now, vs the mutually nurturing and nourishing relationship that you could have with any of the millions of men that you haven’t broken up with twice yet.

What you’re asking me is, “Hey doc. I just got this hot dog, and it fell in the sand. Should I just eat it, or is it possible for me to pick out all the grit and maybe wash it and then have a soggy mess that’s almost edible again and maybe a little less gritty, so I don’t have to throw it away?” If you have 5 bucks in your pocket, I’d say go get another hot dog, toss the other one and never think about it again.

This type of thinking is very common, Cleo. The problem is with the framing: should I keep a miserable relationship, or a slightly less miserable relationship. It’s a false choice. You can also have a great relationship. Just not with this guy. I’m guessing that right about now, you’re getting a pretty unified chorus of friends and family saying that you deserve better. Maybe it’s time to listen to that.

The reason this comes up so often is because of the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve written about this before in Chapter 5 of The Tao of Dating (ebook, paperback, and audiobook), “Understanding Men, Understanding Yourself”, p93:

The Slot-Machine Theory of Human Behavior
“Let’s say you’re in Las Vegas, and you’ve decided to play a slot machine. You put in a coin, pull the lever, and – nothing. Well, that’s fine – you weren’t expecting to win immediately anyway. So you put in another coin and – nothing again. In fact, nothing is the most likely outcome every time. Funny that.

But before you know it, you’ve sunk quite a few coins in this machine. Now you’re thinking, “I’m invested; I can’t just quit now! I’ve fattened this thing up – it’s going to pay off any second now! Jackpot City!”

The fact remains that the most likely outcome of your next pull (and the next, and the next, and the next) is still nothing. And that likelihood does not change whether you put in one coin or 10,000 coins before this pull.

Psychologists have noticed that one of the reasons why this happens (and why casinos are making a mint) is that the human mind grasps poorly the concept of sunk costs. Those first 100 coins that you put into the machine are gone forever, and they have no bearing upon the outcome of the next pull of the lever. People tend to mistake the sunk cost for an investment, which has an expectation of future payoff commensurate with the investment. A sunk cost, on the other hand, is just plain gone.

The way this concept plays out in a bad relationship is that the aggrieved party thinks that she has invested two years dating a jerk, so she can’t just throw that investment away. Besides, through her efforts, he might reform and thereby reward her with the jackpot she’s been working on all along.

Well, there is no way to retrieve or throw away those two years – they’re gone for good. They are sunk costs. And the jackpot isn’t coming. Just as in playing a slot machine, the best policy once you realize you’re in a sunk cost situation is to cut and run and immediately stop your losses. The sooner a woman leaves behind the jerk, the sooner she’s opening her life to the arrival of a guy (perhaps even a Good Guy) who can be a catalyst for fulfillment.” [end of excerpt]

Your question once again brings up the central question of relationships: What do you want, Cleo? Do you want an on-again, off-again relationship that stresses you out? Because that’s what you’re signing up for by staying with him. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and the past behavior has not been promising.

It’s nice that you say you love him, but your mission in this life is to be your most radiant, giving, generous, creative self so you can give your gift to the world, not to have it drained out of you by one person. This man does not sound like the kind of person who as a partner can catalyze your greatness. As such, staying with him would be an act of selfishness. You have a much bigger mandate than having to deal with his issues. Be strong and move on so you can open the door to the right partner who’s been waiting for you for a long time now. And if that means being alone for a little while, that’s still a better spot than what you’re describing right now.

Please recall that I wrote The Tao of Dating because a friend of mine told me she was dating with a man who lived under her roof paying no rent and beating her up. That was a really clear case of someone being in the wrong relationship, because he was physically abusing her. But sometimes the violence isn’t so obvious because it’s occurring emotionally.

All relationships go through ups and downs, but please be mindful of what the overall arc of the relationship is. Does it go down, then go up again, with a general upward trajectory? Or does it go down, and then stay down till you get used to the new normal, then go down again? There’s a term for this in decision science: normalization of deviance. And if you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can sometimes be hard to tell if you’re compromising too much in a relationship.

So here are some ways of finding out whether what you’re putting up with is normal relationship fluctuations or a toxic relationship:

Are your friends worried about you? Do they often express concern about the state of your relationship? Do they ever say things like “He’s not good for you” or “Y’know, have you considered dating someone else?” If so, you may be in a toxic relationship.

Do you find yourself apologizing a lot in the relationship? Like you’re always walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off?  The whole point of relationship is for two people to support each other, not to create an atmosphere of fear. There are plenty of dark alleyways you can walk down in the sketchy parts of the city to make you feel unsafe. Why construct one in your own home?

Do you have a history of staying in bad relationships? If so, your idea of “normal” may be skewed such that you’re willing to put up with a lot more crap than you should.

Do you feel that you’re flourishing as a person in this relationship? This is the absolute criterion that doesn’t even need the rest of them. If the answer is no, it’s time to think about why that’s the case.

If you don’t feel psychologically safe on a day-to-day basis in your relationship, it’s really time to move on. Things like love, growth and joy only have room to happen when the parasympathetic nervous system and the mind and body feel safe. When your mind is in threat response mode, it just never gets past that. If that describes you, call on a trusted friend or counselor to discuss how you can extricate yourself from the situation.

Speaking of flourishing — I’ve got a little something for you. On Tue May 31 at 6pm PT/9pm ET, I’m giving a free teleclass called “Happiness Engineering: The Five Pillars of Authentic Success.” Sign up for it here and I’ll send you a reminder for when it’s happening.

All the best,
Dr Ali

PS: By popular request, Therapy Thursdays continues. If you have an issue that you think could benefit from a one-on-one consult via Skype, send a message to drali at taoofdating.com with “TT” in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do to accommodate you. There are 3 appointment slots per week, and they happen on Thursdays and Fridays.

PPS: If you don’t have it already, you can get The Tao of Dating audibook for free when you sign up for a 30-day trial with Audible.

11 Comments on ““Should I be miserable, or slightly less miserable?”: The Framing Problem”

  1. Sandra Pulido

    Great advice as always Dr. Ali , I purchased and am currently reading your book the Tao of dating. The psychology of relationships and it’s overall success is important to me. I have gotten a lot of great insight.
    Thank you, so much!
    Sandy ;)

    1. Lisa Lowder

      I thought this was amazing advice:

      If you don’t feel psychologically safe on a day-to-day basis in your relationship, it’s really time to move on. Things like love, growth and joy only have room to happen when the parasympathetic nervous system and the mind and body feel safe. When your mind is in threat response mode, it just never gets past that. If that describes you, call on a trusted friend or counselor to discuss how you can extricate yourself from the situation.

      Thank you

  2. Janey

    Dr Ali ,

    This post was a true blessing for me today . I can’t thank you enough for you insight , wisdom and humor ……

    It was if it was written for me on a day I needed it the most ❤️

    Profound and life changing …..

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      So glad you found it useful, Janey! How, specifically, if I may ask?

  3. Elle

    Hi Dr Ali. I really love your concept of reframing and your specific, cut through the bs reframe – “why am I putting up with this shit” – is just gold :). Could be applied to so many situations. And it’s also very Beyonce ;).

  4. Dawn

    I responded to this on Facebook but just in case. There are two positions on this scenario. One is your theory of sunk costs. The other is that she picked up a hotdog when she doesn’t eat pork, but, she picked up the hotdog because she had a myriad of reasons for doing so. And now, she wants the hotdog to be made of beef. As you say, there is always a yin and yang and we cannot always blame the guy for everything.

  5. Rocio

    You targetted a lot of issues here! I enjoy reading your posts. I love your writing style and thoroughness. You’re an awesome gift. Thanks for another great article.

  6. Kelly

    Every single time I read this article it makes me ask why I put up with what I do. I keep going back because it’s an addiction. Sometimes I wonder if I’m strong enough to walk away if he tempts me to come back again. He has just put me on the roller coaster ride again and pushed me away. I wonder how long it will be before he contacts me again or if he ever will again. Seems impossible to walk away from a man I love but my 2 years of effort are definitely sunk costs.

  7. Michelle

    Thank you so much for these words of wisdom!!!

    “Things like love, growth and joy only have room to happen when the parasympathetic nervous system and the mind and body feel safe. When your mind is in threat response mode, it just never gets past that”

    I just lived through this! I have been widowed 6 years after a fantastic 18 year marriage to my college sweetheart. I have been at the dating game and it’s ups and downs for awhile now.

    I met the first guy I had deep feelings for after hundreds of dates and a few short relationships. It recently ended with him dumping me!

    The relationship was toxic. He was very damaged from a 23 year marriage to an unfaithful wife and nasty divorce. I broke up with him twice after feeling psychologically manipulated….I am a strong and independent women that doesn’t let this happen!… Both break ups were followed by apologies for his behavior and reconciliations.

    A few weeks his last apology he dumped me. We had a civil conversation that ended with me telling him don’t try to come back. I made it clear I was deleting him from all of my electronic devices. I walked out relieved not to put up with his BS any longer.

    A month later I am missing him terribly…even though I know better. He had some awesome qualities but they didn’t compensate for his really bad behaviors.

    Reading your advise made me realize a few important things.

    1) He broke up with me because I wasn’t the same girl he met… His behavior and psychological BS caused me to withdraw because I didn’t feel safe. The love and growth we had in the beginning turned into me being guarded and untrusting of him. I can honestly say after the second breakup I wasn’t the same towards him. In fact, I was sabotaging the relationship unconsciously, but deliberately.

    2) I did the right thing telling him not to contact me ever again… Glad I only have a few months of sunken costs and set the expectation I wasn’t willing to invest more at a later time.

    3) I am going to listen to your audiobook on my road trip this weekend. It’s been a few years since I read the book and I need a refresher.

    I am now looking forward to my long drive.

    Thanks Dr. Ali

  8. Mary

    Dr. Ali, I know this is an older post but I had saved the link when it first appeared because your advise resonated with me. Unfortunately, it took me more than an additional year to actually act on it, and I have (finally!) ended the so-so, uninspiring relationship with a man that fits the description of the one described by the original letter-writer.

    Immediately I felt lighter, happier, relieved, hopeful, and freed from the constant, daily, unrelenting sense of disappointment that the relationship was not more satisfying than it was. And the sense of helplessness that I could not get it there. Like pushing a huge boulder up a reluctant hill.

    Dr. Ali, I want to thank you for the clear, insightful and compassionate advice. I also purchased your book, and it’s just wonderful. You are an inspiring man and on behalf of good women everywhere, please know that you are doing a great service.