If there's one person in your life who you've never managed to get over, you know how hard it is to have the "one that got away". Although sometimes the one that got away can be a nothing more than a wistful memory, for other people it can become toxic — and even obsessive. They focus on that person, compare everyone else to that person, and never really let themselves move on. So why is that one person that got away so difficult to shake?
Well, according to Amy Summerville, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Miami University and Director of Miami’s Regret Lab, the answer is in the research. And evidence shows that, for some people, they regret things that might have been — and for others it's things that did happen, but didn't go according to plan. "In a representative sample of Americans, people's biggest life regrets were actually evenly split between actions (things they did, but wish they hadn't) and inactions (things they didn't do, but wish they had)," Summerville tells Bustle. "There is some evidence that regrets of inaction occur more in the long term or last longer, in part because our minds treat our unmet goals as a sort of mental 'to-do' list and over time we're more able to remember things we wish we had done than the mistakes we actually made."
And there's a reason that romantic mistakes are the perfect fuel for regret — and it all has to do with unmet goals. Here's why it can be so hard to move on.
Why It Can Be So Difficult To Get Over It
You probably pine for the one who got away more when you're single — or at least not in a happy relationship — because you still haven't reached your goal of being happily paired up (if that is a goal for you, of course). We're more likely to regret things that somehow are still relevant to us. "Regret tends to persist when it's about an area of life where we still have opportunities to meet our goals," Summerville says. "So, one reason that romantic regrets tend to loom large is that we know that we'll eventually have another romantic relationship, and so that regret is something that will be useful to us. Five years after college, it's much more useful to remember why things didn't work out with your college sweetheart than what went wrong on your chem midterm."
So as long as you're still searching for something, you're more likely to feel regret about a person who could have filled that gap. But it's also because our brains like to trick us into thinking that we could see the whole picture, even when we couldn't. "It's also important to remember that regret is closely related to hindsight bias, the feeling that we 'knew it all along' even about outcomes that were really uncertain at the time — and so, we may try to make sense of bad things that happen by imagining ways we could have prevented them, even if at the time there's nothing we really could have done differently," Summerville says. Even saying "the one that got away" feeds into this type of thinking — the idea that they only got away because you did something wrong. It can feel that way, even when it's not true.
How To Come To Terms With Romantic Regret
So, if you're struggling with regret, how can you get yourself out of it? Well, they key is to not look at whatever happened with this person as a mistake — instead, try to think of it as a learning experience. "I think it helps to remember that regret is a sign that you're learning from your mistakes," Summerville says. "Regret stems from what psychological scientists call 'counterfactual thinking' — thoughts about 'what might have been'. So, you feel regret when you realize that things could have been better if you'd done something differently. Even though regret feels bad, the counterfactuals that it's based on are actually really important to learning and planning."
If you can figure out what went wrong then — rather than obsess over that mistake — you can figure out how to rectify it in the future. "The important thing to do is to focus on what you can learn from your regrets — maybe you should have communicated more honestly with a past partner, and that's something you can use to remind yourself to have better communication in a future relationship," Summerville says. If you look at is at a learning experience, then it's played some kind of positive role in your life — no matter how hard it was to get over.
If you can't stop thinking about the one that got away, you're not alone. A lot of people struggle with what feels like an unfinished relationship. But if you can focus on what you learned from it — and how to that can help you in the future — you can change a negative experience into a positive one. And remember, they're only "the one who got away" until the right one comes along.