Intimate love — 07 November 2010
Ever wonder what might have been?

Many adults periodically wonder about how their lives might have been different had they made other choices in love. They reminisce about the missed opportunities, the unvoiced high school attractions, the hasty breakups or the fate of former boy/girlfriends.

For some it is a whimsical fantasy, for others a philosophical curiosity and for some a regretful contemplation in view of a less than ideal current relationship. Pondering how and why our lives took their course is a universal fascination that should not entail unnecessary grief or needless unhappiness.

Nineteenth Century American Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'” The implication is that a comparison between the present and an idealized image is likely to cause you sadness.

In many practical matters, hindsight may warrant the disappointment. For example, if one had in the past declined to purchase a piece of land at a low price that is now very valuable, he may have cause for regret. Or, if one had years ago stubbornly refused to complete the last two classes toward a graduate degree that now blocks her professional advancement she may feel justifiable regret and anger at herself.

However, when it comes to matters of the heart, there is no evidence that another life path could have produced greater happiness. Thus, the grief about what might have been is unmerited.

Researchers Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec and Serena Chen showed that “Regrets of inaction (“Should have asked her out,”) are more psychologically “open,” more imaginatively boundless, meaning that there is always more one could have done and further riches one might have enjoyed (“She’d have been a wonderful partner”). They last longer than regrets of action in part because they reflect greater perceived opportunity.”

Yet, regretting what might have evolved if an action were taken in a hypothetical love relationship, is creating a positive myth that is always superior to his/her current state and sets him/herself up to feel regret for missing it. One rarely regrets this thought, ”Had I married my first sweetheart we would have been miserable together.”

When you attend your high school reunion, visit your hometown or get updates about former paramours, enjoy the positive feedback you receive and delight in how favorably you are still being remembered. Dream a while about what might have been but abstain from regrets that are based on fantasy.

When romantic regrets about what might have been trouble you:

• Remember that the images of bliss you create about Ms. or Mr. Wonderful are pleasant dreams to enjoy. Awake to pleasant feelings, not regret.
• Reassure yourself that most likely your earlier love decisions were appropriate. You were unprepared, unaware or intuitively guided to move on.
• Use the happy images of what might have been with former love interests as directives to what needs to be created in your current love connection and act upon them.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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