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Lost Love: How We Can Learn From Failed Relationships

Failed relationships allow us to learn, if we can access the wisdom.

Key points

  • Anxiety or unwarranted suspicions about the behaviors of a new love interest may be activated by memories.
  • Potential can be perceived as real, and disappointment about fantasized relationships can hurt.
  • Regrets represent internal feedback about our past behavior.

Memories protect us. They inform present decisions and actions, helping us anticipate and plan for the future based on past experiences. Recalling memories of heartbreak or simply remembering repeated disappointments may unnecessarily warn us that a current relationship will fail even before we give it a chance. As a result, anxiety or unwarranted suspicions about the behaviors of a new love interest may be activated.

A devastating end to a previous romance may influence our sense of vulnerability. Memory bias for threat-relevant information, such as the thought that a current partner may hurt you, based on remembering the actions of a previous partner, tends to be present in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder (Coles & Heimberg, 2002). However, for all of us, the past may erect caution since we all rely on memory to inform present and future decisions. We may reflect on the information, ignore what the past is telling us, or even take it too seriously.

Relationships do not have to be longstanding to activate memories that may influence us. Brief relationships may also be primed by memories that may lead them to fail. Online dating, and dating in general, can leave us feeling inadequate or let down, especially if we have suffered from prior experiences of relationship failure.

Passion may be aroused by potential partners whose existence becomes a product of our imaginations (Bershied & Walster, 1978). These hidden others result from images of idealized standards and represent unresolved issues regarding how we establish and adjust our ideal standards over time (Simpson, Fletcher, & Campbell, 2008). Nevertheless, potential can be perceived as real, and disappointment about these fantasized relationships can hurt.

Introspection and Regret

We may look back on a failed relationship with quiet introspection. Introspection involves self-reflection—examining our thoughts, feelings, motives, and vulnerabilities. However, memories of shame or sadness may make us ponder what we regret. Regret has been conceptualized as a higher-order cognitive emotion because it involves both thinking and feeling (Lerner & Keltner, 2001; Västfjäll et al., 2011). When we experience the shame of regret, we are motivated to temporarily alter memories by imagining what might have been had we taken a different path or seized an opportunity (Nathanson, 1992). Although we cannot erase the past, considering the choices we made and the alternative possibilities can help us learn something for the future and shape us positively.

Regret informs us of a failure to live up to our ideals, over and above the mistakes we have made (Davidai & Gilovich, 2018). In the long run, we regret our inactions more than our actions, so regret lingers where opportunity existed and where we have missed tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal (Davidai & Gilovich, 2018; Roese & Summerville, 2005). Despite how uncomfortable our regrets may feel, they represent internal feedback about our past behavior. The cognitive process, known as counterfactual thinking, has to do with our assessment of an outcome compared to what would have been gained or lost had we made a different decision (Zeelenberg et al., 1998). Thus, we mentally simulate other outcomes of past events by considering hypothetical alternatives (Davis et al., 1995). Even so, we may pursue counterfactual information for its own sake (FitzGibbon et al., 2021). Thus, when love is lost, we are given a significant opportunity to review our decisions and assess our behaviors retrospectively.

The Shame of Failure

However, we may ignore the lessons we can learn from a failed relationship. Instead, we may cope with or defend against the shame and sadness we experience from lost love by attacking the other (“They were a loser anyway”), attacking ourselves (“I am not lovable”), through withdrawal (“I will never date again”), or avoidance (“I will just drink myself to sleep and forget about it”) (Nathanson, 1992).

The shame of failure may feel terrible, but it is a teacher that enables us to look inside and to think deeply about ourselves (Nathanson, 1992). Moments of shame provide an opportunity for self-reflection and are a way to derive meaning from our experiences. Although looking back may not always influence future behavior, a self-reflective capacity can enable us to respond positively to distress.

Events of the past are learning prompts and markers of how far we have learned or not learned. Consider earlier relationships, but not with the intent to fix them since that past is gone. Instead, we can look at those events and how to use them to make meaning in a new relationship. What makes the self a limit that becomes an obstacle to learning is when the self becomes an object of need; for example, when we find that we are solely invested in protecting ourselves rather than learning about ourselves and accepting our vulnerabilities. As we look back at failed relationships, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we do not have to be afraid of shame if we can embrace the possibility of learning immensely from what we have experienced. Moreover, a new relationship can be a path toward healing since love rooted in the will to affirm the value of the other can absorb shame (Nathanson, 2010).

[Excerpted in part from my book, Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]


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Nathanson, D. L. (2010). In G. F. David (Ed.), Dear Dr. Nathanson: Emails of Don Nathanson from 1999 to 2012 on affect-script psychology (p. 56). Unpublished manuscript.

Roese, N. J., & Summerville, A. (2005). Why we regret most . . . and why. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1273–1285. https://

Simpson, J. A., Fletcher, G. J. O., and Cambell, L (2008). The sturucture and function of ideal standards in close relationships. In G. J. O. Fletcher and M. S. Clark (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Interpersonal Processes, 86-106. Blackwell.

Västfjäll, D., Peters, E., & Bjälkebring, P. (2011). The experience and regulation of regret across the adult life span. In I. Nyklicek, A. Vingerhoets, & M. Zeelenberg (Eds.), Emotion regulation and well-being (pp. 165–180). Springer Science + Business Media.

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