We’ve all heard that term before, right? People will tell their sad tale of love gone wrong with a cheating man (or woman) and how they can’t leave because they love him (or her). Someone will come along and say, “Kick him to the curb! You can do better than him. You deserve so much better.” Typically shortly after that another person comes along and pats the grieving person on the back. “There, there. They don’t understand. It’s not so easy. You’ve got sunk costs- children, a mortgage, ten, twenty, thirty years with this person. You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. We understand. You’ve got sunk costs.”
Those sunk costs are a killer, folks. They keep us tethered to toxic people who abuse us and take us for granted.
I sometimes wonder, too, is it really that we’ve invested so much time and effort into this person, or is that we’re scared of the unfamiliar? Kicking your cheating spouse out might feel liberating in the moment, but then you’ve got to live with that. Where are you going to live? Will you be able to keep your home? How are you going to pay for everything? What if you have to share custody of the kids? What if you never go on a date again and never find love again? What if, what if, what if?
I get it. Believe me, I do. You’re reading the words of a woman who lost pretty much everything in her divorce. Sunk costs? I had them in spades- twenty years of marriage, a stay at home mom for fifteen years, no idea how I would support myself much less my two teenagers, a brand new house we hadn’t paid the mortgage on for even a year, brand new furniture throughout the entire house, a $57,000 inground pool, a brand new car that had been purchased less than a year prior to my discovery. On top of that we had just moved 2000 miles across the country for his dream job, completely uprooting my life and the lives of my children. Plus, we had three dogs and had just taken in 3 cats. How’s that for sunk costs?
I ended up losing our home when Jerry Lee was forced to resign and then refused to get a new job, figuring he could play the system and get out of paying adequate support. I had to move back to Indiana with my tail between my legs- defeated and deadass broke. For ten long months he paid nothing in support and then the next ten months he paid a fraction of what he was supposed to. I worked two jobs to make ends meet, even living with my mother. I applied for Medicaid for me and my kids, and for free lunches and textbooks, as well. There were many days I cried and cried and didn’t want to ever wake up again.
I didn’t believe I would ever date again. I had absolutely no plans to date again. I didn’t want to put myself out there again. Just between you and me I don’t really consider what happened in my situation to be dating. The mobster fell out of a tree onto my head. End of story.
Pretty much every horrible thing I thought was going to happen to me, happened to me. I spent an awful long time in that dark place.
I completely get sunk costs. And I sympathize with those who don’t want to lose everything. I didn’t want to lose everything either.
Tracy Schorn has an excellent post on her blog entitled, “You Don’t Need It That Bad.” It’s an ode to putting on your ass kicking boots and telling yourself that nothing is worth suffering through a cheating spouse. Your spouse is lying, gaslighting, and cheating on you but you really really love your vacation home? Get to the point where you tell yourself, “I don’t need it that bad.” You love being a stay at home mom and know that the only way you can continue to do that is if you look the other way while your husband beds every available female in the area? You don’t need it that bad. You’ve spent twenty-five years with a liar and a cheater and you think you can’t leave because of your “sunk costs”? Do you want to spend another twenty-five with a liar and a cheater? Do you want to get sick and find out that your twenty-five years don’t mean anything to this liar and cheater? They’re out of here as soon as you cease to be useful.
Here’s another part of that equation that most people don’t think about when figuring in their sunk costs. Sometimes you may decide it’s not worth it to leave. You’ve got history. You’ve got a great home that you couldn’t afford on your own. You love this person. You don’t want the other person to “win”. You don’t want to share custody of your kids. Sometimes that shit happens anyway. Sometimes they leave despite all the crap you’re willing to take and all the shit sandwiches you’re willing to eat. They take it further and further underground and they get better and better at cheating and getting away with it. They hide money and make their plans, or they wait until the kids are all out of high school so they don’t have to pay child support, and when they’re ready they walk out the door. Nothing about you. All about them.
You better make damn sure those sunk costs are worth it. You might still end up losing everything you clung to so tightly and you will definitely lose your dignity when you realize you tolerated so much for someone who cared so little and still ended up with nothing.
I bought into all of that crap the first time Jerry Lee was exposed. I could tell myself that it was only an emotional affair, that they never hooked up, never met in person. I did the ol’, “I’m not going to let one moment in our 18 years together define our entire marriage.” I did the marriage police for a period of time. I looked at my home and my kids and my comfortable lifestyle. I didn’t want to be divorced and I didn’t want Harley to win. I measured my sunk costs against everything I would be giving up and I took a chance on a liar and a cheater. I lost. The next time he did it I didn’t get the chance to measure those sunk costs. He was going to leave. Twenty years of marriage didn’t matter to him. Me moving all over the country for his job didn’t matter to him. Our two children didn’t matter to him. The fact that we had just moved, just bought a new house, new furniture, new car, and just put an inground pool in our backyard didn’t matter to him either. All that mattered was this new life that was calling out to him, promising him happiness.
When you break it down you’ve got two options really. The first one is to decide your sunk costs are all that matter. You’re willing to hitch your wagon to a liar and cheater because that’s what you know and look at everything you might have to give up. But you’re stuck with a liar and a cheater, a person you probably can never trust again. Your second option is to throw caution to the wind. To tell yourself, “I don’t need it that bad.” Yes, you might lose a whole lot. You might even lose everything. But in exchange for those losses you no longer have to be tethered to a person who treats you with no respect, who will cheat and lie as easily as they breathe. You may even end up with a pretty damn good cheater free life.
In hindsight I wish I had focused a whole lot less on my sunk costs and decided a whole lot sooner that I didn’t need any of it that bad.