Have you ever felt stuck in a bad relationship, but found yourself unable to take the first step towards changing your situation? Have you gone through relationship “doldrums,” not seeing a way out? If so, you are not alone.

Sadly, flailing relationships abound these days, with one or both partners unwilling – or simply not able – to make headway in the direction of positive change. It turns out, though, that this indecisiveness is not a showing of weakness, a personal failing, or a lack of willpower. There is a scientific phenomenon to explain it: the “sunk-cost effect.”

What is the sunk-cost effect?

Basically, it’s a pattern of unconscious behaviors that leave us stuck in the same place because we are attempting to get a return on our proverbial investment. We have sunk time and energy into a marriage, so we are unwilling to forfeit the costs we’ve already paid just to make ourselves happier or more successful.

This phenomenon is well-illustrated with a non-relationship example. Imagine a poker player in a casino. He begins the night on a high, winning hand after hand and amassing an impressive pile of chips. Mid-way through the evening, though, his luck starts to change. He loses several big pots in a row, and his chips begin to dwindle. The smart move here might be to cut his losses and cash in his chips before he loses any more money. He’s unwilling – consciously or not – to do that, though, because he’s already invested his time, money and energy into the game. He ends up losing everything, walking away from the table defeated.

The same can be translated into relationships. Once we’ve put in a certain amount of time and effort, we feel compelled to see things through to the end, even if we inadvertently make ourselves miserable in the process.

This does not have to be your fate. You and your spouse can seek the help of a licensed therapist to identify whether improved communication and understanding of each other’s needs can improve the quality of your “return on investment.”

Of course, if the marriage cannot be saved, then California law permits one to can get out of an unhappy marriage without showing fault. The advice and counsel of an experienced family law attorney is the first step in understanding the possible options.