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Why Men in Relationships Mistakenly Think They’d Crush It If They Were Single

If you’re confused about your buddy breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, it’s not just him. Behavioral economists warn that a lot of people believe they have far more options than they really do

Guys who want to pitch an open relationship to their long-term partner might want to do a little research on Reddit first, where there is no shortage of men who regret that decision. There’s the dude whose girlfriend of two years started bringing home guys within three days while he was striking out, or the married guy whose wife of five years is “blossoming” with “new relationship energy” as he spirals into despair. The more you dig into the desperate anecdotes and frantic venting, the more likely you are to agree that the longer men are in relationships, the more they overestimate how well they’d do on the open market.

Certainly, though, this principle doesn’t just apply to men — some studies have found that a majority of people experienced second thoughts after getting divorced. So, why does this overconfidence get in the way of us being happy in our relationships, or our decisions to end them? “One of the core tenets of behavioral economics is the principle that people will not make rational actions even in the face of information and knowledge,” Keisha Blair, behavioral economist and author of Holistic Wealth, tells me. “They will make substandard decisions due to overconfidence in their abilities and the outcomes.”

This is because our behavior tends to be more influenced by the people around us and broader cultural influences than by cold, hard facts. Plus, social media and dating apps may give some a false sense of an overabundance of options. Or as economist Dan Ariely pointed out in a YouTube video, these potential new options — typically accompanied by highly edited photos — are often judged alongside people’s long-term partners, who they know in very intimate ways. “In one click, I could have a date with somebody else,” Ariely explained. He compared this impulse to having an apartment where the lease is day-to-day, and every day you and the landlord have to decide if you’re going to extend the lease: “How much would you invest in that apartment?” 

The answer is, of course, very little. 

But like Blair notes, this fear of missing out on better options goes against obvious facts. Studies have shown that the abundance of choice on dating apps creates a “rejection mindset,” which makes singles more pessimistic and lowers the chance of getting into a relationship. On top of that, people often think they’ll perform better in many areas of life where they fall flat — a phenomenon known as “self-assessment bias.” Generally speaking, employees tend to overestimate their performance, and drivers often believe they’re better behind the wheel than they actually are. Not to mention, one ruthless study found that men rate themselves as more attractive than women do. “Many studies show how men are more overconfident in their abilities,” Blair confirms.  

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who stay in bad relationships for too long. Economists have a term for that, too. The “sunk-cost fallacy” is “the idea that people will continue to invest in a losing project simply because they’re already invested in it, even if it means risking more losses,” Blair explains.

For Blair and the clients she coaches, the lesson is that our relationships with money and romantic partners are more similar than people think. “This is why I advocate that people know their own personal financial identities even before they embark upon marriage or having children,” Blair says. Otherwise, they might think, “If I didn’t have all these responsibilities I might be doing better today,’” when that’s not necessarily true. “That depends on a whole host of reasons and assumptions,” Blair warns. 

So go ahead and start angling for all those other fish in the sea, just know that reeling them in isn’t gonna be anywhere near as easy as you think.