3 Reasons Romantic Regrets Are so Strong
Research can help explain why regrets about romance are common and long-lasting.
Posted Feb 13, 2019
For the single or separated, Valentine’s Day can be a painful reminder of romantic regrets. In fact, romantic relationships are among the most common source of regrets. Research suggests three major reasons romantic regrets are so common:
1. Feeling connected to other people is among our most basic needs as humans. In fact, social psychologists compare it to the need for food and shelter. It’s no surprise, therefore, that regrets are tied to the need for social connection. Researchers have found that regrets about social relationships are more common than regrets about other areas of life, like careers or finances. Moreover, this research team found that the degree to which a negative experience was tied to rejection predicted how strong an individual’s experience of regret about that experience was. Although this is a pattern that extends to other kinds of social relationships, romantic breakups tend to be among the harshest rejection most of us experience once we outgrow the “You can’t sit with us!” experiences of middle school.
2. Regret is based on counterfactual thoughts about “what might have been." These thoughts involve a comparison between reality and an imagined alternative that could have happened if only we had done or said something differently in the past. Researchers have found that lost opportunities, when we realize that we could have done something differently, but can no longer go back and make things better, are particularly common sources of regret. Given how often we talk about “missed connections” and “the one that got away," lost opportunities may be especially common in romantic relationships. They may be even more pronounced when we look to the more distant past. Because unmet goals tend to be active in our minds and easy to remember, people often focus on the things they wish they had done, but didn’t, when they think about regrets from several years ago. As a result, the lost loves of our teenage years may be especially likely to haunt us in middle age and later life.
3. Although regret is an unpleasant emotion, there’s a silver lining. My own research has found that the regrets which persist over time and are the most notable in the long run focus on ongoing goals that we still feel we have the opportunity to obtain — that is, even after a bad breakup, it’s the belief that we’ll find love in the future that makes our regrets so persistent. Moreover, regret can help us learn from our mistakes. Researchers have found that thinking about how things might have been better in the past makes it easier to form intentions for the future. So, feeling regret about past failed romances may actually help us find lasting love in the future.
If romantic regrets are getting you down, keep in mind that research suggests that the lonely hearts club has a large membership. Moreover, although regret is unpleasant, the lessons it teaches can help improve future relationships.
Morrison, M., & Roese, N. J. (2011). Regrets of the Typical American: Findings From a Nationally Representative Sample. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(6), 576–583. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611401756
Morrison, M., Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2012). Life Regrets and the Need to Belong. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 675–681. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611435137