What Netflix's 'The Ultimatum' Can Teach Us About Why We Stay In Bad Relationships

Instead of walking away, the 'sunk cost fallacy' tricks us into investing even more of our time.

Netflix's 'The Ultimatum' + the 'Sunk Cost Fallacy' In Relationships
Photo: Netflix/ InStyle

"This….this is the Bad Place," I texted a friend. "How can ANY of these couples think they're ready for marriage?"

Unless you've been living under a rock, Netflix's The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On has been on everyone's minds — and tongues — for the past two weeks. My group chats, Instagram DMs, and Twitter feed has been ablaze with memes, condemnations, and laughing emojis to the point where I don't think I could have stayed away from the streaming network's new dating show for long, even if I wanted to.

The basic premise is this: six Austin-based heterosexual couples in long(ish) term relationships are at a crossroads — one person feels ready to take the next step (i.e. marriage) and the other, does not. The show essentially gives them a hall pass in the form of a trial marriage to partner up with other people within the same three-week experiment. The original couples then have a chance to reunite for another three weeks and see if they can work through their differences, using the lessons learned from their temporary relationships. Although all these couples seem destined to fail from the start IMO, two in particular caught my attention: Madlyn and Colby, and April and Jake.

Clearly, this show is full of unbridled chaos, but the award for the couple most likely to raise my blood pressure has to go to Madlyn Ballatori and Colby Kissinger. For the other five couples on the show, it was the guy who was given the 'ultimatum' by their girlfriend, but in their case, Madlyn was the one holding out — and it quickly became clear why. While he initially seemed like the perfect doting boyfriend, we see him gaslight Madlyn and hear how much her friends prefer her trial husband and fellow castmate, Randall. In Madlyn's own words, Randall "ticked every box" and showed her a kindness and acceptance she did not receive in her relationship with Colby. Contrasting this dynamic with her subsequent three weeks back with Colby (where she discovered that he hooked up with multiple women outside the show during their "break"), I could not fathom WHY Madlyn would choose to not only return to her original partner Colby, but (spoiler alert!) get engaged to him!

The only explanation I could come to is a term I learned in an econ class several years ago: sunk cost fallacy. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sunk cost fallacy is a "phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial." While this can apply to holding onto an expensive dress that no longer fits because it cost so much of your paycheck, it can also show why people stay in relationships far longer than they should due to the perceived amount of time, effort, and energy they've already spent trying to make it work. While I was screaming at Madlyn through the TV Keyshia Cole-style to, ahem let it go, it's easier said than done.

When it comes to sunk cost in relationships, clinical psychologist Lauren Cook, PsyD, MMFT tells me, "It happens more often than you may think, especially when one or both partners have anxious attachment" — which often goes hand-in-hand with fear of abandonment and can cause someone to do anything to hold on to a connection — even if it's not serving them.

"Where it becomes problematic is when couples have a non-negotiable issue that can't be compromised on and yet neither is willing to budge," Cook adds. If you've been in a long-term relationship, you know this thought process all too well after a series of big fights about the same issue: should I stay or should I go?

The other mind-boggling couple is April Melohn and Jake Cunningham. When we first meet April, she's hell-bent on an engagement with Jake, but as we watch them interact with each other, it's clear that they are incompatible. During their time apart, April frequently shares her desire to be different to her trial husband, Colby, saying: "I'm excited to show Jake the person I've become." While she is adamant about working on their relationship issues once reunited, Jake repeatedly stonewalls her, talks about how happy he was with his trial wife Rae, and hides racy videos of other women on his phone. (So yeah, a super great guy!) Similar to Madlyn and Colby, their relationship was obviously very toxic, as they had no foundation of trust or honesty. Despite his lack of effort in trying to meet April halfway, she continued to fight for the relationship until the bitter end, when Jake finally admitted he did not want to marry her. April allowed him to neglect her emotionally throughout their relationship and continued to aim for marriage with this person precisely because she could not imagine giving up after all of her efforts and starting anew. Once again, we see the perils of sunk cost fallacy at work.

Personally, I think granting the person you want to marry permission to date someone else in front of your face for three weeks is a recipe for disaster, but the show did yield some valuable life lessons worth reflecting on for my own love life. Beyond alignment on basic values such as a desire to have kids or a belief in God, clearly, both parties have to want it to work. "All relationships are going to have positives and negatives, [but] the key is having two partners that are committed to each other and to doing the work to create and maintain a healthy, lasting relationship," says licensed marriage and family therapist Stephanie Macadaan, LMFT. "If one partner is not willing to contribute to keeping the relationship connected, there is likely not long term compatibility."

While I will not be signing myself up for any reality TV shows anytime soon, if I've learned anything from The Ultimatum it's this: Despite our natural human bias, investing more of your time into an unhealthy relationship is always a bad idea — regardless of how long you've been together.

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