With the start of each new year, I engage in a lot of self-reflection; in fact, I think I do more self-reflection than New Year’s resolution making. At about this time last year, I started to awaken from a long, self-induced romantic relationship hibernation. After wiping the sleep from my eyes, I have dated several interesting men and had quite a few adventures. As I reflect on the last year, and the years that have led up to this one, I need to admit to myself that the changing of old relationship patterns remains difficult for me. For example, just when I started to open up and let myself really like The Consultant, I was temporarily derailed when an old flame, The Question Mark, resurfaced. While I have no intention of reopening his can of worms again, I have been forced to consider whether one of my personal mottos, “no regrets,” is really true for me. If I am a person with few or no regrets, then why was I so thrown by the text I got from The Question Mark a few weeks ago?
Regret is an emotion we experience when we believe a situation or relationship would have been better if we had done something different(ly).1 Researchers have found that anxiously attached individuals (who are hypersensitive to relationship threats) are more prone to regret than people with other attachment styles.2 In my case, I would characterize myself as being more avoidant than anxious in my relationships, and I don’t find myself prone to regret often. I also did about everything I could to try and have a relationship with The Question Mark, so my feelings do not really stem from what I have not done. So, I guess I can still stick by my “no regrets” motto.
In contrast to regret, we experience disappointment when we perceive that a situation or relationship would have been better if circumstances had been different.1 In retrospect, I suppose disappointment is the better label for my long relationship with the Question Mark (wonder what that emoticon looks like?). Researchers have found that people experiencing disappointment make smaller demands on the disappointer in order to minimize future negative emotions.3 In other words, they may ask or expect something from the partner, and when they are let down, they expect less and less so that they won’t feel disappointed again. This would explain why, for years, I expected less and less from The Question Mark and was “happy” with the little bit I was able to squeeze out of him. For example, at the start of our relationship, I expected to talk with him regularly and intimately -- when I became disappointed with the frequency and depth of communication for stretches of time, I was OK with sporadic “catch-up” conversations that I told myself were "fulfulling." To be honest, they were never fulfilling enough for what I was wanting from him. Simply put, I lowered my expectations way too much. Other researchers have found that people who experience disappointment abandon their goals altogether,4 which can explain why, for many years, I have been afraid to get too close to anyone else; I’ve been worried that the relationship goal I was pursuing would just lead to disappointment again and of the same magnitude that I experienced with The Question Mark. One sample of young adults found that people who have excessive feelings of worry and helplessness tend to anticipate more negative things happening to them in the future5 than do people who are more optimistic. With my worries about getting too close too soon, it is no wonder that I keep waiting for The Consultant’s other “shoe to drop” and for things to go south quickly. I need to stop worrying about the disappointment I will feel in the future, and just focus on the enjoyment I am experiencing now, in the present.
After reflecting on all of this the last few weeks, I have grown quite sad and angry with myself about utilizing this old relationship blueprint for years without being fully aware of doing it. I am thankful that The Consultant has pushed me emotionally to explore my old choices in order to understand how they impact my ability to be intimate with him today. Fortunately, just this week he invited me to for a weekend away in California wine country at the start of the New Year. His invitation sounds like the perfect way to start the next year. Maybe I will make a resolution this year after all – to continue being honest with myself, make time for introspection, and enjoy lots of wine while I am at it.
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1Giorgetta, C., Zeelenberg, M., Ferlazzo, F., & D’Olimpio, F. (2012). Cultural variation in the role of responsibility in regret and disappointment: The Italian case. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33, 726-737.
2Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Plaks, J. E. (2012). Anxiety attachment uniquely predicts regret proneness in close relationship contexts. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 348-355.
3Van Kleef, G. A., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2006). Supplication and appeasement in conflict and negotiation: The interpersonal effects of disappointment, worry, guilt, and regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 124–142.
4Zeelenberg, M., Van Dijk, W. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2000). Regret and responsibility resolved? Evaluating Ordóñez and Connolly’s (2000) conclusions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 81, 143–154.
5MacLeod, A. K., & Byrne, A. (1996). Anxiety, depression, and the anticipation of future positive and negative experiences. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, 286-289.
Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.