Over the summer, I was in Boston and out to dinner with a colleague who specializes in relationships. We’ll call him Adam because, well, his name is Adam LoDolce. When two relationship experts go out to dinner and strike up a conversation with the waitress, you’d assume the topic du jour would be love, dating, and relationships.
You’d be wrong.
For the Love of Cars
Instead, we chatted with our waitress Jordan about cars. Yup, automobiles. It all started when Jordan overheard me say how much I love my 10-year-old car, despite it having ancient technology (an old iPod connector in the glovebox) and completely lacking modern basics like a backup camera. I was saying to Adam that despite these annoyances, and clear justification for an upgrade, I’m riding with this car until it dies.
Overhearing this, Jordan shared how she was similarly dedicated to her car. But it was a little different because, in her words, her car “sucked so bad.” A ringing endorsement for sure. Ever curious about how people think about the world and make decisions, I asked her to explain.
It was her first car. Not the first one she had ever driven, but the first real serious car that she considered her own. She thoroughly researched it, looked at lots of different models, picked this one, and bought it with her own money that she saved up. She didn’t just buy any old car. She did it right. After years of public transportation and bumming rides off of others, she had saved up enough to buy a luxury model, the type of car that anyone would agree is a top-end, high-quality vehicle. Expensive, but she deserved it.
Or so it seemed at first.
Jordan went on to describe what seemed like the world’s longest list of car troubles. It was long. It was involved. It. Never. Seemed. To. End. Frankly, there’s more than I can remember or give justice to here. Actually, if I’m being honest, either because of the story or the wine, I may have zoned out a bit. But to say it was exhaustive is an understatement. Jordan’s car troubles were not only numerous, but they were comprehensive—impacting every facet of the car, from electrical, to mechanical, to basics, like her key fob not working and requiring a $100+ replacement. I felt traumatized on her behalf.
Hearing all of this, I remarked, “But you’re keeping it?” To which she replied, “Of course I am, it’s my car, and it’s a high-end brand name car” (In reality, she had no problem constantly name-dropping the type of car, but I’m leaving it anonymous so that I don’t get sued.)
A Keeper or a Trade-In?
My question is…should she have kept the car and continued to spend money on never-ending repairs? Or should she have traded it in a long time ago?
Hearing this story about a car as an objective outsider, the answer is obvious. No more repairs, no more money, no more waiting. She deserved better and should trade this car in as soon as possible.
But that’s not how we treat things we love. And that’s the problem.
A Metaphor for Relationships
Though Jordan was quite literally talking about her car, her feelings about it are a metaphor for relationships. Despite every obvious sign telling her that her car was unsalvageable, she stuck with it because it meant something to her. Each new expense or problem triggered the natural reaction to dislike the car and swear this was the last time she’d fix it. But it wasn’t.
She kept fixing it because it was part of her identity. She stuck with it because she remembered that feeling she had when she first purchased it. She held on to her early optimism, hoping that everything would eventually work out, that it would be the car she wanted it to be, that she knew it could be. The reality told a different story, but she was undeterred.
It was clear that she was miserable with this car, but her feelings had a certain romanticism to them. Jordan spoke proudly of her dedication and loyalty. She knew others would have quit on this car, but not her. She was going to rescue it. The problem, of course, is that she’s stuck driving a horrible car, and that wasn’t ever going to change. She was stuck. She was still miserable about it.
Two Key Lessons…
Realizing that Jordan’s car story is a metaphor for how many of us approach relationships is eye-opening in itself (go back and re-read it with a relationship in mind…it maps on nearly perfectly). But there are two key lessons to take away.
First, our romanticism about relationships can undermine our decision-making. Love can make us blind, deaf, and even a little dumb. Instead of seeing things as they are, our romanticism encourages us to see what we hope will be. We’re way too optimistic. To make that a reality, we make excuses and convince ourselves that things will change and that our partner will get there. We see redeeming qualities and hopeful signs that no one else would ever notice. Our partner just needs time and a little help from us.
That’s the second key point. We can’t continue devoting our time, energy, effort, and resources to a failing relationship, hoping our most recent effort is the one that turns things around. Economists call this “throwing good money after bad,” and it’s a problem that plagues relationships. If we forgive our partner this one last time or give them one more chance, everything will work out. What you’re really doing is wasting time and delaying your ability to find the truly great partner you deserve.
We don’t want to quit too early but conveniently ignore the very real costs of holding on too long.
Make no mistake, whether you’re talking about cars or relationships, sticking with things too long is expensive. So much of what we put into our relationship, we can’t get back. Being in a lackluster relationship also costs us the opportunity to find a better relationship.
You can do better. You deserve better.
Go out and find better.
And if you’re driving around Boston and see someone in an expensive car broken down on the side of the road, give Jordan a hand.
Hope this helps,
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D. an award-winning professor, researcher, writer, and relationship expert. His TED talk and relationship programs have been enjoyed by millions worldwide. As a Love Strategies Instructor, he shares insights from 25 years of experience studying the science of relationships to help women build a deeper, more meaningful romantic connection with their partner.