A Dating Story: Sunk Cost Bias
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Early in my 15 years of living in Connecticut I knew no one, and sought companionship and boredom-free living through personal ad dating. These were the days before matchmaking Web sites and apps. You both wrote and answered letters to a confidential mailbox set up by a newspaper or magazine. Or responded to voicemail.
The Connecticut dating scene hadn’t impressed me. I thought I could better connect with men who lived in my home town of Manhattan. I placed and answered ads, scheduled appointments and then made a six-hour round trip for a first date. I suppose nothing smells more “desperate” than that.
I wasn’t desperate. But I was working way too hard.
I had a nice phone exchange with a man I was to meet at Fez, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. I arrive at the restaurant. Sit at the counter in full view of the front door. Thirty minutes later my date has yet to show.
This had happened to me before – traveling across state lines for a first date. But I decided not to act on that learning because this time I’d felt a “connection” with the man on the phone.
After 30 minutes I left the restaurant and walked the East Village streets sobbing quietly. As I walked all the way north back to Grand Central Station, I cried some more.
In these days before cell phones were ubiquitous, I used only a land line. If my erstwhile date had an emergency and needed to call me, I wouldn’t know it until I arrived home in New England – three hours later.
Sure enough, when I arrived at my apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, No Show had left a message. He was at the restaurant, where was I?
When I returned his call, my first point of business: ascertain I was at the correct meeting place. I described the restaurant and where I’d sat for 30 minutes. “When were you there?” I wondered aloud.
Then, pause. “I had a migraine and was lying in bed not sure I’d be able to make it.”
“Okay. You were there, I was there. I told you when. What time were you there?”
One hour after the arranged time.
“You arrived an hour late and then ask me where I was?”
He said, “I thought you would wait.”
Stunned I was then, and still am so many years later. By his response, certainly. Also by this realization: of course he thought I would wait. I was the woman traveling six hours round trip across state lines for a first date. This phenomenon: Sunk cost bias. You’ve invested so much already. Even if it’s not worth investing further you do so because your sunk costs convince you to hang on. My date is thinking: What’s another hour if she’s already invested six plus?
“I’m sorry. I’d like to make it up to you.”
I thought he would offer to travel round trip across state lines to Connecticut to meet me. Instead, he suggested we set up another meet in Manhattan. I said, “Good-bye.”
Though we had only spoken twice and had never met, we had shared enough intelligence by phone that he was able to glean where to send a dozen long-stemmed roses: my office at the insurance company where I worked at the time.
From surrounding cubicles female coworkers converged toward me to ooh and ahh. I read the short note of apology then dumped the roses in the trash.
Ten years would pass before I would begin to understand this overfunctioning pattern. And once doing so, practice new ways of relating.
I came to this realization years later with the help of therapists because it felt so counterintuitive: As long as I was doing all the work, there was no reason for the other person to show up.
Here in this blog post now two decades later, I am tempted to write, “Duh.” I must be more self-compassionate, though. Sarcasm and disdain wouldn’t be fair to who I was at the time: in my very early 30s and only out of my dysfunctional family-of-origin household for a decade. And, a few years into what would become long-term therapy. My interpersonal dynamics were looped in a reflex of giving myself away. As a child, such a reflex kept me sane and possibly alive in a violent, chaotic household. Why should it stop working now? That was part of the psychotherapeutic journey: to understand that what kept me afloat as a child was dysfunctional in adulthood.
Yes, I was angry with my “date” for assuming I’d wait. Yet in a deep, pre-verbal place inside me I knew I was as culpable, if not more so, for what happened. I just didn’t understand why. Twenty years and many therapy hours later, not only do I understand it, but also have actively applied that understanding to ongoing recovery.
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“Recovery in my experience is a disease of managing chronic relapse. And so you learn a little bit more each time you fall down.” Ben Affleck
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