by Amy Alkon
Q: I was engaged to a woman 20 years ago. We were in college and in our mid-20s. I realized that I wasn’t ready to get married and called off the engagement. I loved her and wanted to stay with her, but she broke off the relationship. I’ve had relationships since then, but I still regret not marrying her. She’s married now, and I shouldn’t even be thinking about her so many years later, but I can’t seem to shake the loss of her. How do I get her—and, moreover, the regret—out of my head?—Stuck
A: The reality is, you’re the envy of a number of people—like those who ran up $80,000 in legal fees battling for joint custody of the suede sectional and are now working as a manservant for their divorce lawyer while living in a tent in his backyard.
You’ve got a bad case of the “coulda shouldas,” which, in psychology, is called “counterfactual thinking,” as in thinking “counter” to the actual “facts” of what happened. It’s basically a mental redo of the past—imagining what could have been. There’s healthy counterfactual thinking—using how things turned out as a reminder to act differently in the future. Also healthy is recognizing that things could have turned out worse, like with all the divorcey fun above, plus having to borrow your kids like library books on alternate weekends.
The unhealthy kind of counterfactual thinking is what you’re doing—setting aside the now to obsess over how great things surely would have been, “if only … ” Never mind how pointless this is, considering that the closest thing you own to a working time machine is probably a battery-operated cuckoo clock that your grandma gave you.
And never mind how this woman is forever 24 in your head—preserved like a bug in amber at the peak of her hotitude—and never does things those pesky real women do, like nagging you to fix that broken thingie until your head is about to explode all over the kitchen wallpaper.
You can get out of Regretsville. You just need to have a funeral for your relationship. And yes, I know this sounds like a ridiculously hokey stunt, but more and more, researchers are finding that the physical is tied to the psychological—like that physical acts of “closure” lead to psychological closure and that treating thoughts as physical objects makes them as disposable as objects. In a study by psychologist Pablo Brinol, participants who wrote down troubling thoughts and then ripped them up were found to have “mentally discarded them” and actually experienced relief. Following their lead, put this behind you psychologically by doing it physically: Write down what happened. Burn the paper in a dish. Maybe do a little ceremony. And then scatter the ashes as you would those from Fluffy’s urn.
And, finally, have a little compassion for yourself. OK, so it’s best not to follow up, “Will you marry me?” with “Uh … take-back!” But you were young and probably immature, and you realized that you’d gotten yourself in over your head. And to your credit, you had the guts to admit that you weren’t ready, unlike all the people who come to the realization that they aren’t, but go through with the wedding anyway. (“Who’ll join me in a toast to ‘miserably ever after?!’”)
Q: A good male friend (going back 20 years) is a great guy—fiercely ethical and very kind—and is irate about the jerks I’ve been out with recently. He has two guy friends he thinks I’d like. Is it safe to assume that they’ll be cool/respectful because this is coming through our mutual friend? (I figure it can’t be worse than truly blind dating online.)—Jerk Magnet
A: A friend who cares about you wouldn’t knowingly put you together with jerks—which would be like recommending a prospective tenant to his landlord with, “He just wants a quiet, safe place … ” and neglecting to mention “… where he can pursue his hobby of balcony chicken farming.”
And the good news is that a good guy is likely to have friends “of a feather.” Studies by psychologist J. Philippe Rushton suggest that we have a genetically driven preference for both mates and friends who are similar to us—especially in age, ethnicity and educational level, but also in opinions and attitudes. So, if this guy likes and respects women, there’s a good chance that his friends do, too. But a “good chance” is not the same thing as an “ironclad guarantee.” In other words, go in with your eyes wide open, because it’s still largely a gamble; it’s just less likely that your friend will be all, “Found the perfect guy for you. We all call him ‘B’—because it’s easier than saying ‘Beelzebub.’”