If you can't be with the one you love, honey, pack it up and leave him in the dust.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Happy Valentine's Day! Now Cut Your Losses

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Tomorrow night, at restaurants across the land, men will whip rings out of their pockets and try to find some vaguely original way of asking the woman across the table if she would like to spend the rest of their lives together raising children, choosing furniture and arguing about just how clean the bathroom vanity needs to be kept. At many other tables, women will be hoping for a proposal that doesn't come. If you are in that second group, I have some hard news for you: It's probably time to leave.

I say probably because if you are 24 years old or have been dating for less than a year, then it's a little too early to be seriously worried about where this relationship is going. And if you don't want to get married, then hey, don't! Breathe a sigh of relief that he didn't propose, grab a snack and settle down for the latest issue of "The Americans."

Those aren't the folks I'm talking to. I'm talking to you, 30-something woman who has been dating the same guy for a couple of years (or more), maybe already moved in together and started picking out that furniture. The one who is ready for those babies, or at least a joint tax return, and would like to get the matter settled as soon as possible. The one who is anxious that her partner doesn't seem as eager as she is but is afraid to deliver an ultimatum for fear the answer will be "OK, bye."

Here's the thing, though: The guy who leaves you because you deliver an ultimatum is probably also the guy who is going to leave you a couple of years later, having wasted more of your prime dating years on his dithering. Pardon the sexism, but most men aren't operating on the same timetable for having kids, and also, at least in my experience, they don't tend to stay silent and hopeful for so long. And I'm sure there are also lesbians and gay men out there who are frustrated with a partner who doesn't want to settle down, but again, the gender differences in biological timetables -- and willingness to commit -- don't seem to loom so large for them in my circles. So I'm going to address this column mostly to the folks it is most likely to describe -- heterosexual women -- and if there are others who feel this way, too, just change the pronouns in your head and proceed.

So here's my message to those ladies: It's time to let go. I know, I know -- it feels catastrophic to think about ending a relationship that you've already invested several years in, when what you want most in the world is for that relationship to continue until one of you gets carried out feet first. But take it from me, it will feel even more catastrophic after you've invested several more years. If you're in your 30s, both of you already pretty much know who you are. And after a couple of years, you also know whether this is someone you want to spend your life with. You're not going to get any new information by sticking around -- except "My God, I wasted five years on this man."

As you may guess from the prior paragraph, I speak from personal experience. I invested almost four years in an almost-great relationship that ended with me, shattered and tear-stained, deciding to pick up and move to Washington. You can hear all about it in this NPR segment from a few months back, which they re-aired this morning. Or you can read about it in my book, where I delve into even more of the gory details and deftly weave it together with the sad saga of GM's decline, which happened for much the same reasons that my failed relationship did.

"Seriously?" you're asking. "Love is like ... automobile manufacturing?" Well, no. But companies are composed of people. And people tend to make the same sort of mistakes over and over. This particular mistake is so common that economists have a name for it: the sunk cost fallacy.

A sunk cost is, well, like a sunken ship: It's gone, and you cannot retrieve it, or you can only retrieve it at immense expense. The correct and rational way to deal with a sunk cost is to ignore it -- to make decisions without thinking about the money or time you've already invested.

Think of it this way: If you're horribly ill and you've spent a bunch of money on tickets to a show, there's no point thinking about how much the tickets cost, because no matter what you do, you can't get it back. What you should be thinking about is whether you will enjoy the show in your current condition. Making yourself miserable will not somehow rescue the money; it just layers another cost -- the agonizing hours you will spend wishing that you were home in bed -- on top of the cash you used to buy the tickets.

Unfortunately, human beings are terrible at thinking this way. Once we have lost something, we become desperate to get it back. The sunk cost fallacy appears over and over in all facets of human life: Think of companies that spend vast fortunes trying to salvage doomed IT products, or compulsive gamblers who go back again and again trying to get even with the house, a feat that is mathematically nearly impossible over the long run. Even if we've never darkened the door of a casino, when we are dealing with sunk costs, all of us easily turn into wild gamblers, ready to take ultra-long shots rather than admit the loss and move on.

And boy, does it show up in relationships. I cannot count the number of women I have watched throw year after year into a doomed relationship because they are desperate to redeem the prime dating years they have already wasted on a man who does not want to share his future with them. Every one of them said afterward that she wished she'd cut things off when it became clear that he wasn't as enthusiastic as she was.

It is hard to fight such a powerful urge to gamble, but it is possible. The main thing to do is to stop lying to yourself -- hesitance is not a sign that he just needs more time, but a sign that he isn't sure he wants to marry you. I'm not saying there's no chance you'll get married later; I'm saying that if your biological clock is ticking and you don't want to be chasing toddlers around the living room when you are 50, then the odds are not good enough to warrant the gamble. Set a deadline for having the talk, and also set a deadline for when he needs to fish or cut bait. Then focus all your energy on keeping those deadlines.

I know, he's great, he's exactly what you wanted in a husband, breaking up a household and friend networks and the whole tidy life you've built as a couple is going to be shattering. And as someone who's been there, I agree: It will be shattering. All I can tell you is that it will be even worse if it happens two years from now. 

There are other great guys out there who won't be ambivalent about marrying you, and if you are ready to get married, you should go find one of them as quickly as possible. Stop focusing on everything you've lost by investing too much time in the wrong guy -- seriously, try not to spend a single minute thinking what you'll do if he says no. Think instead about the mechanics of delivering your request -- and if you must think about a future beyond him, think about the fact that there is a person out there right now who you will love even more than you love the one you're with. 

As you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, my story has a happy ending. I'd read all the horror stories about dating in your mid- to late 30s, and I'm sure they're all true, but they weren't for me. I moved to Washington thinking I'd probably never get married, or even date, so it was time to think about what my unmarried life should look like. I'm not going to say it was all wine and roses, but my dance card was full, and 18 months after my move, I started dating the amazing guy who is now my husband. About 11 months in, as we were drinking wine on our patio, I felt moved to be clear and straightforward about what I wanted, in a way that I hadn't dared to with my previous boyfriend, because what if he said "No"? 

"I don't want to string along for years," I told him. "I'm not demanding a proposal or anything, but I'm just letting you know, that eventually, I'll want to get married, or we'll have to end it. If you don't want to marry me, hey, fair enough, and we can still be friends. But I just won't do it again." A few months later, he proposed, spontaneously in the middle of a household budget meeting, which is a great story to tell at cocktail parties and, hopefully, a nice memory for us to laugh over in the nursing home.

Am I guaranteeing you'll live happily ever after if you tell him you want to get married or start looking for someone who actually wants to build a life with you? Nope. Nor am I guaranteeing that you'll live happily ever after if he sheepishly pulls out the ring he'd been planning to offer you on Easter Sunday. Life is risky. There are no guarantees. All you can do is play the best odds. And the best odds for being happy lie in finding someone who can't wait to spend the rest of his life with you. Hopefully, that one is sitting next to you on the couch right now. But if he's not, then it's time to go figure out where he is.

  1. Yeah, I know. Patriarchy. But there you are.

  2. I am sure there are men who feel this way, too, but they tend not to stay silent and hopeful for so long -- and, of course, unlike many women, they are not operating on a timetable for having kids.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net