Breakup Regret Is a Common and Salient Human Experience
An older British man admitted he thought of his high school sweetheart daily, even though he was married to another woman and they had adult children.
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Whenever Jane’s ex-boyfriend posts on Facebook—showing photos of his adorable family and the gleaming white smile that hasn’t changed since high school—she feels a twist in her gut, like she’s glimpsing a better life she could've had.
They’re both in their early 40s. He has a wife, a child, stepchildren, and a settled domestic life. Jane (a pseudonym) is a single mom with one daughter and not a spare moment. “I’m working; I’m going to school,” she says. “I don’t even have time to get coffee with someone. When I think about him, I feel lost.” They grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and dated for four years. He was a football player, wholesome, capable, and committed to his family. “They had a spaghetti dinner every Sunday night,” Jane remembers. “He knew how to cook. He could change his own oil. He did every DIY thing.”
He got a scholarship to a prestigious university in another state, but she convinced him to go to a school near the one where she planned to study, so they could stay together. Jane had a longtime crush on a close friend’s brother and when he became single, she left the handy, good-looking football player to be with him. She admits it was a youthful, impulsive decision.
After that, Jane’s romantic life played out like a series of sad songs: Her boyfriend died young of Hodgkin lymphoma. She tried to get back together with her ex, but he had moved on to someone new—and was somewhat sour she’d dumped him. She married twice, at 23 and 31. Both marriages ended in divorce.
“All the things I haven’t had in a relationship, I think I could have had with him,” Jane says. “We clicked in ways that I haven’t clicked with anyone else. I think we’d have a garden, a home, kids.” She pictures their life together down to household chores—which they’d split evenly—and thinks about him roughly every other day, or whenever he pops up on Facebook.
Regret over relationships that went south is more intense and common than other forms of regret, according to psychologists. “Most [people] have had multiple relationships by age 30,” says Craig Eric Morris, an anthropologist at Binghamton University who has studied grief over relationship dissolution. On average, one of those relationships “was severe enough that it had an effect on their ability to go on with their lives. Everyone has had one that was really bad.”
In one of Morris’ studies, more than 90 percent of respondents reported both emotional trauma—such as anger, depression, and anxiety—and physical distress like nausea, insomnia and weight loss over a breakup. In a study that included older participants, he found long-term wistfulness over sunken romances was not rare, but mainly a phenomenon among men.
Morris’ research shows that the partner who initiated the breakup feels less grief than the one who got dumped, but both often feel sorrow and regret at the way the relationship unfolded, often on different timelines. “The person who initiates the breakdown gets a head start,” Morris says, and may be silently grieving the relationship during what both will look back on as their final days together.
Relationships are the focus of deep regret more often than other life struggles, according to a 2011 study, mainly from researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They asked a representative sample of Americans about their most salient regret. More named one pertaining to romance (19 percent), than related to any other arena of life, including family (17 percent), education (14 percent), career (14 percent), and finance (10 percent).
Amy Summerville is the head of the Miami University’s Regret Lab, a study unit for thoughts of “what might have been” and their effects. These what-if’s are known in psychological literature as “counter-factional thinking.” “That’s when you think things could have been better [and] the directions things could have taken and the factors related to that,” Summerville says.
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She says breakups have three earmarks of regrets that are deeply felt and often ruminated over. Firstly, people tend to brew on losses of social standing and acceptance, from broken friendships to job losses. “Individuals tend to regret anything that will be a threat to that sense of belonging,” Summerville says. Romantic partnerships are a key source for that basic psycho-social need.
Secondly, people, naturally, are more prone to regret circumstances over which they had some control. Freak accidents or the results of the behavior of others tend not to generate as much remorse as one’s own actions and inactions. In a relationship, partners make and commit to a long series of decisions. “[W]e have a lot of agency and control,” Summerville says. And there are consequences to those choices, up to the breakdown and termination of the relationship. That makes actions in a romantic relationship more regret-worthy than similar behavior patterns in a family relationship. “My brother is not going to stop being my brother because of a way I acted,” Summerville adds.
Lastly, people more often lament misgivings related to reoccurring themes and struggles, Summerville says. You might regret being a brat and source of worry to your parents as a teenager, but that regret is muted once you’re an adult and have moved on to a different type of relationship to them and to new, more mature habits. But for most people, a love life is a continuing effort—either to find a partner or hang onto and be happy with their current one. When you hit a rough patch, you might be tempted to trace your circumstances back to “the one that got away”—or an idealized version of that person.
Combine the three factors—social belonging, agency/control, and ongoing struggle—and you have a hotbed for remorseful thought. In 2015, Morris and his collaborator Emily Roman, from University College London, published a large study of adults of all ages—with a population-representative percentage of gay men and women—and their response to post-relationship grief. It was meant to overcome a shortcoming common to breakup research; scholars often survey college students, that low-hanging fruit of academia. This survey involved 5,705 participants in 96 countries with a median age of 27.
Once again, emotional and psychosomatic pain was universal immediately after the breakup. But when the researchers discussed the healing process and long-term impact with participants, there was marketed difference between genders. Women tended to reflect and move on. “Women reported they spoke with friends and family and clergy,” Morris says. “Many will say, ‘It was a long time ago’ and, ‘Here’s what I learned from it.’”
He adds, “Women never say, ‘That was the greatest guy of my life [and] I’ve never made peace with it.” Morris says he is speaking in generalities. (He evidently never spoke to Jane—or the singer Adele.) But women tended to move past regret, eventually and then completely.
When the researchers spoke to men, they tended to be much more regretful and they didn’t use the same language as women. “Not one guy said, ‘I’m over it. I’m a better person for it,’” Morris says. They speculated and often mentioned a past partner as the best they ever had or the point where they should have stopped their romantic search—had everything gone well.
Some of the tales were extreme: One man lost his partner to another guy in a love triangle. He told Morris he had frequent dreams that he was being swallowed by a black shadow and speculated it was a subconscious representation of his romantic rival, come to consume the rest of him, having already obtained his proverbial better half.
An older British man admitted he thought of his high school sweetheart daily, even though he was married to another woman and they had adult children. He admitted he fantasized about her reentering his life and leaving his family to be with her again.
Morris speculates that because men have traditionally been expected to initiate relationships and their ability to hold onto a female partner has been tied to other capacities, as a breadwinner and a person of social standing, the loss hurts more and is seen as more significant. “It’s magnified when it has so many social significances,” he says.
This is another reason the men he surveyed were eager to enter rebound relationships, he thinks. It’s a quick return to social status. Even after observing so much pain from relationships, Morris says he thinks most people successfully overcome their breakups—even the ones that hold onto some regret. The British man who thought of his teenage-era girlfriend? Morris says he was generally happy and this thought didn’t cause him distress. It was actually a pleasant daydream.
Keith Markman, an Ohio University associate psychology professor who specializes in counter-factional thinking, says there is a distinction between it and rumination, angry thoughts that “intrude on people’s minds.” For romantic regret, people tend to have rosy, nostalgic thoughts that can be part of a healthy view of love. “People tend to have faux regret after the relationship happens,” Markman says. “Their tone tends to be wistful, sentimental. They have a distant feeling of longing and nostalgia. It can be very functional.”
In addition to helping people not repeat the same mistakes in new relationships, romantic regret has the positive role of acting as a reminder of what a relationship can offer, he says. Breakups themselves are “pretty rotten for everyone,” Morris says, but they are so common “we must have some way to come through them. If we didn’t there just wouldn’t be so many relationships among people.”
The fact that people don’t stop dating by 30—at which point nearly everyone has gone through some psyche-ravaging, heart-mauling, Morrissey song-evoking breakup—is proof to him that relationship regret, however salient, is usually somehow overcome.
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