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Is Romantic Rejection Worse Than Romantic Regret?

How these obstacles threaten romance.

Key points

  • Fear of rejection and missed romantic opportunities are two major obstacles to finding love.
  • People perceive missed opportunities to have more consequential and regrettable outcomes than rejection.
  • Rejection is like vaccine: it hurts at first, but it builds up your immunity to future disappointment.

Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light? —Maurice Freehill

Dear John, I must let you know tonight that my love for you has gone, there's no reason to go on, for tonight I wed another, dear John.” —Pat Boone

The pursuit of romance can be thwarted both by rejection and regretting missing opportunities. But which threat is more devastating?

Romantic Rejection

I have rejected many men, but the first time I was rejected was devastating.” —A woman

Romantic rejection can be one of life’s most painful emotional experiences. When the rejection is perceived as irrevocable, it is a humiliating blow to our self-esteem, since it reflects another’s negative evaluation of our worth, or perceived worthlessness. We long for someone but this person does not care for us. Someone we deem good enough for us does not think that we are good enough for them.

Below are random answers (from Reddit) to the question: “Does anyone else struggle with a fear of rejection that prevents meaningful relationships?”

  • “It's so bad I don’t even bother trying to form relationships anymore; I just don’t let people approach me.”
  • “I’ve been rejected a lot. I definitely fear the actual rejection.”
  • “I thought I had a fear of rejection, but after being rejected several times, I’ve realized I'm not afraid of it at all.”
  • “I don’t care about being rejected. If someone doesn’t like me, that’s okay with me.”
  • “I think the more you are rejected, the less you fear it. It might take a bit of rejection before you start to become less phased by it. No pain, no gain.”

The Road Not Taken

"The fantasy of what could've been is always going to be sweeter than the reality of what it would have been."--Anonymous

There is no rest for lovers these days, and not because the road of love they are traveling on is bumpy; it might be a bit boring, but it is still a valuable road—probably one of the best in the history of humanity. Yet the novel road not taken appears more attractive, especially when there are so many roads from which to choose (Ben-Ze'ev, 2024). Chasing after a short-term fantasy is often the problem, not the solution. Fantasies about what is or might be “out there” often prove to be a poor substitute for what we already have. We become enslaved by our own fantasies about the possible. As the Eagles sing in "Hotel California,”: “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” A better understanding of our situation may free us from this prison, or at least make life within the prison walls more enjoyable.

Below are random answers (from Reddit) to the question: “Does anyone else think of missed romantic opportunities every now and then?”

  • “Sometimes I think about the old boyfriend who drove halfway across the country to try to stop me from getting married. He showed up the day before my wedding, wanted me to run away with him. Sometimes I think about how different my life would be if I had just gotten into his car. I've been married 11 years.”
  • “Still friends with her but I've always loved her and guess I always will. She's married and I don't go crazy about it, but I know she was always special. It doesn’t mean that I love who I'm with now any less."
  • “I think about it all the time. Just left a relationship and now I'm remembering the interesting people I've met/hooked up with in my life.”
  • “I was in a music fest in Miami for two weeks. On the last evening, a woman with whom I’d become friends asked me to sleep in her twin bed with her female friend. I made zero moves. The following year, the woman comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t f*ck in Miami.’ I don’t know if I can forgive myself.”
  • “On two separate occasions, I had two different girls give me a look of obvious ‘hey I’m into you and see you are attracted to me, why aren’t you making the move on me?’ I did nothing. My self-confidence is sh*t and I f*cking hate myself.”

Two types of regret are regret over actions, more common in the short run, and regret over the road not taken, which looms larger in the long run (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). This is also true in the romantic realm. Thus, one survey of 48 women found that only one regretted having pursued a life dream, while almost all the women who had not pursued their life dream regretted it (Landman, 1993:107-108). It is generally easier to find silver linings in our regrettable romantic choices, such as “having two wonderful kids,” important lessons learned, and new doors opened. Short-term activities, like romantically approaching someone and being rejected, rarely provide the same sort of compensatory benefits. Long-term considerations mainly concern lost opportunities, whereas short-term considerations are more preoccupied with actual hurt, such as rejection.

Comparing the Pain of Rejection and the Road Not Taken

Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people. Don't base your self-esteem on their opinions.” —Harvey Mackay

Samantha Joel and colleagues found that despite the heavy psychological cost of romantic rejection, people perceive missed romantic opportunities to have more consequential and regrettable outcomes than rejection. People frequently choose to pursue romantic partners even when their own fears of rejection and perceived chances of rejection are high, and attraction is not particularly strong. These effects emerge in part because the rewards of intimacy are more highly valued than the costs of rejection, and the cost/benefit calculations underlying romantic pursuit include additional rewards beyond intimacy (e.g., the many social benefits one derives from being in a relationship) and additional costs beyond rejection (e.g., the risk of winding up without a partner) that nudge people toward pursuing rather than not pursuing (Joel et al., 2019; Joel & Mcdonald, 2021).

The ability to heal from romantic rejection is indicated by the presence of much more advice on coping with rejection than with coping with the road not taken. Some advice about rejection instructs us to be aware of the prevalence of rejection, realize that the short duration of their negative consequences and recovery is possible with time, not to let rejection define our self-worth, be wary of impulsive behavior, take it as a learning experience, take care of ourselves and stay healthy, keep busy and keep looking for someone else (see here, here, and here). There is less advice for missing a romantic opportunity, which suggests forgiving yourself, avoiding the feeling of missing someone, and finding the positive aspects of your current situation.

In many circumstances, positive romantic options, such as roads not taken, are more powerful than negative ones, like rejection. Rejection can be compared to a vaccine: it hurts at first, but it builds up our immunity to future disappointment. Missing the desired road not taken is not like a vaccine: it hurts for a long time and hardly contributes to our immunity system. This does not mean that we should travel on all desired roads in order to avoid the negative consequences of rejection and the road not taken.

In accordance with the saying, “A glorious failure is better than dreams in the drawer,” healthy romantic pickiness should involve lesser fear of rejection and greater significance of the pros and cons of a certain road in our given circumstances.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2024). Romantic affordances: The seductive realm of the possible. Philosophical Psychology.

Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.

Joel, S., Plaks, J. E., & MacDonald, G. (2019). Nothing ventured, nothing gained: People anticipate more regret from missed romantic opportunities than from rejection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 305–336.

Joel, S., & MacDonald, G. (2021). We’re not that choosy: Emerging evidence of a progression bias in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 25, 317–343.

Landman, J. (1993). Regret: The persistence of the possible. Oxford University Press.

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