Not all relationships last—some are more of the “learning love” kind. But breakups are rarely easy. As a sex therapist and relationship expert turned neuroscientist, I often hear from people who regret breaking up. It’s what I call a breakup hangover—when we end up being awash in feelings of regret after deciding to let go of a relationship.
Having regrets post-breakup doesn’t necessarily mean that you should get back together with your ex. We’re wired to feel bad when we experience the loss of a relationship, even if we’re the one who initiated the breakup. Longing, sadness, and grief are all exquisitely wired into our emotional instincts, and they can help us lean into doing the work of growth as a person. That’s good news! Regret is part of grieving, and as I like to say, breakdown often means breakthrough.
How to recognize if you have regrets
Short answer, we ruminate.
Longer answer: We tend to think about loss in the same way we ruminate about new relationships.
On the upside of new love, we think about that person all the time—and those thought loops can be very exciting and pleasurable. But even under the influence of new love, our inner dialogue can reverberate with concerns, fears, and worries about perceived threats to the relationship. We are creatures of attachment, and loss looms large for us.
When we break up, it’s not unusual to experience a similar kind of rumination, in particular when we aren’t feeling complete and there’s more work yet to be done. It’s normal, in other words, to regret breaking up—even if you’re the one who did the dumping. Relationship healing, as it turns out, is an inside job that needs to happen even if the particular relationship doesn’t continue.
How to handle breakup regrets
1. Get curious.
Ask yourself these questions: Was breaking up an in-the-moment decision? Or was it brewing for a longer time? Is life better after the breakup? Worse? Unchanged? Was the relationship not working because the partner was not treating you properly?
Don’t be afraid to get feedback from people who know you well. How did they see you reflected in the relationship?
2. Take a relationship inventory.
If you’re still searching for clarity, look back. Were there any signs or symptoms of an unhealthy relationship? Without assigning blame, see what dynamics led to your relationship dissatisfaction and influenced your decision to leave. Were you or your partner judgmental? Did you not give each other the benefit of the doubt? Did you not appropriately take a stand for what you needed in the relationship? Did you tend to make your partner wrong when most of what couples fight about is simply a matter of opinion? Take full responsibility for your part of the dance.
As I tell couples in counseling, we each have 100% responsibility for what shows up in a relationship. That’s great news since that means we can change things for ourselves going forward.
3. Don’t beat yourself up.
It’s perfectly natural to have regrets even if you know the breakup is the best thing for you. Recognize that what you’re feeling is normal and doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong decision. Don’t beat yourself up.
This is a good time to practice radical acceptance. The ability to tolerate our feelings, even the painful ones, is a sign of emotional health and a necessary skill for good relationships.
4. Get analytical.
In general, are you an anxious person who tends to self-doubt? And if so, is the issue really regret about the loss of the relationship or simply concerns about your own decision-making?