WEDNESDAY, July 15 — 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?
Q: 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 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. Okay, 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!’?”)