I would like to talk about regret—and when it makes sense to return.
You are sitting, eating from a box of cookies. Through a moment of carelessness, you drop a cookie. It lands on the floor. What is the appropriate reaction? Should it be discarded, even if it looks okay? What if the cookie was dropped not through carelessness, but on purpose?
There are lots of possible answers here. In many cases, it depends upon the specific circumstances. How hungry are you? Are there more cookies in the package? How clean is the floor?
I recall taking a test in middle school. It was in band class; I was supposed to attempt a difficult piece of percussion sight reading. I recall having a good understanding of my own capabilities. I knew how well I could spell, and competed in the state spelling bee as a result (2nd place). I knew how proficient I was at martial arts, and competed in state competition there, as well (also 2nd place). I also knew exactly how capable I was when it came to sight reading a difficult piece for percussion; so when my instructor said that taking this test was voluntary, I declined. I knew I would perform poorly, especially in comparison to other gifted drummers in that same class.
Afterward, the teacher explained that the true test was to see who had the initiative to take the test, even though it was very difficult for our age group. Everyone who attempted the test was given an 'A'. I was given a 'C' for that course, mostly because I did not even attempt to take that test.
Is there value in making the attempt, even if one recognizes in advance that it will be especially difficult? For a child who never puts themselves out the, the answer may well be yes; but this was not me. I pushed myself in other fields where I knew that I could be successful. I traveled to Birmingham for state competitions. I read books that were aimed at much older audiences than I was, at the time. I had no general problem with putting myself out there. So, in the case of this percussion test, should I have attempted it anyway? Even in knowing that I would not perform well at it? What lesson would this teach me? Is there value just in the attempt itself?
I've had several romantic relationships in my life. Some short; others long. I'm polyamorous, so I'm never really not open to new relationships, but I'm also an extremely busy person, so I'm never really actively looking for new ones. This means that my relationships rise and fall mostly with where and when I happen to move to a new place.
Early on in my life, I placed a large amount of importance on specific people being in my life. As is common in our culture, I would begin a relationship with someone and then want to continue it, even when it made little sense to do so. I was always quite loyal. I felt that, if my feelings for a person were true, then it was important that I continue loving them through good times and bad. I would always pick up the cookie, even when it was good for neither of us.
As I grew, I came to realize that even the rarest of cookies were still relatively plentiful in this vast world. When a relationship would sour, I learned to walk away and begin anew elsewhere. This made sense. Even though I felt (and still feel) that I made a particularly good mate, that capability is harmed when problems in the relationship overshadow possibilities for positivity. I never made first chair in percussion in middle school, even though I was at a similar level of competence as my peers; the fact that I was unwilling to try kept me from being considered, even though I deliberately choose not to test because I knew I would perform poorly. But I did well in other fields where this souring incident did not occur.
Of course, relationships don't just sour by themselves. In many cases, I caused the souring through actions I took. When I was very young, these tend to be actions that were mean-spirited. When I became an adult, they were actions born of accident, or sometimes carelessness. Occasionally, they've been on purpose. Most recently, it has been because I did not understand why it was bad at the time (an excusable offense), and did not take seriously a warning that it would considered bad by the other party (a less excusable offense).
Unlike most people, I don't have to stop being in a relationship with someone in order to move on to other things. Being poly means maintaining long distance relationships is easier for me than for most. I can amicably end a close relationship while maintaining it at a less intense level of intimacy. Relationships can endure errors and continue even when pursuing other relationships might be easier.
When I was young, a dropped cookie was always picked up. I focused solely on maintaining even flawed relationships, mainly because I felt that the love of felt earlier in the relationship would be somehow tainted if I didn't continue to love the same person regardless of circumstance. Later, I learned to let go, but still kept open any relationships I could, even when I had done severe damage to the cookie of my own free will.
Today, I think back and I regret. I had a relationship end that I did not want to end. I made an error: a significant error that warrants serious consideration. I was told: don't do X. It's inappropriate. In the heat of the moment, I might change my mind, but that will not be the real me. The heat of the moment came, and I wanted X. She wanted X. So we did X. But in doing so, I had betrayed the level-headed person by listening instead to the one acting in the moment—the one with a brain chemistry spiked by endorphins that was not acting per the request of her past self only a few moments earlier.
This is a serious breach of trust. It is assault, in one sense, because it went against a person's will. In another, legal, sense, it did not rise to assault, since she welcomed it in the moment and gave no indication to stop once it was in progress. Once she did object, I immediately ceased. It was confusing in the moment to have such conflicting signals, but I honestly tried to do what I thought was best.
Later, I learned that she felt violated. It is an odd sort of violation, where I felt that I was acting appropriately at the time, but it was indeed a violation nevertheless, because individuals need to be able to set boundaries that should not be crossed, even if their future selves invite them to be crossed.
Legally, what I did was not assault. But the law is not a good judge of what is moral here. I clearly acted wrongly; when a person sets a boundary, it should be respected even if that person recants, if the recanting is done in a situation where they are but thinking as clearly.
This remains true even though I was in the same situation, and I was similarly not thinking as clearly. Once a boundary is set, it should be respected by not allowing ourselves to get into a situation where we expect we might be tempted to cross that boundary.
So although this was not legal assault, I believe it morally counts as something like assault. I invited disaster by going into a situation where we might reasonably expect a boundary to be crossed. This is no different from running with scissors; even if my intent was not to injure, the act of running itself risked injury to a degree where I should be held ethically at fault. (The seriousness of this topic nags at me so strongly that I cannot help but to make several hyperlinks in the above text, in a misguided attempt to distract the reader into something more interesting to them (and less personal to me).)
And so the cookie lies upon the floor. The question now is: should I have picked it up?
This blog entry is titled "Regret", and so maybe you already know the answer. But do not be so sure.
In one sense, the harm that was done is not necessarily relationship-ending. We both made errors, and what fault exists is due solely to choosing to run with scissors, with no intent to use those scissors to harm. We both prefer the company of each other; it's not as though we have serious issues with our relationship that haven't been listed here. I really enjoy being with her, and the feeling seems to be reciprocal. But there are two main problems.
The first problem is that she feels violated, even as she recognizes my good intent. It would take a large amount of effort to make the relationship work with where it now stands. This first problem lies mostly upon her; she feels hurt, and she would need to move on from that hurt in order to enjoy her time with me. The only way she could do this is with time and significant effort on my end.
The second problem is my will. It is the portion that is primarily my problem. It takes patience and deep care to nurture a relationship back to health from this set of circumstances. She is worth that effort, of course—she has many of the qualities I admire most, and all in the same package. She is intelligent, ethical, motivated, caring, and genuinely fun to be around. She matters as an individual to me, but even beyond that: as a person with a set of qualities, it would be exceedingly improbable for me to ever find another like her in the world.
This second problem is my willingness to go through such effort. Is it that I am lazy? That I am not thinking straight? No, I think it may be because I am polyamorous. I have another partner whom I love very much. I am comfortable with her. She helps to smooth my life and make it easier. I am quite happy being with her. There is no perceived lack in my everyday being, no person-shaped hole in my heart. Yes, I care deeply for this person whom I am no longer with, but it is not as though my life is empty without her.
This second problem is that the effort involved in rescuing this cookie is immense. It would take away energy from my life. It would complicate my ability to do other things. It would require such a large focus from me. She is worth it, that's for sure, but with limited resources, being worth it is not enough. The poor in developed countries deserve to be helped; they are worth our charity. But as an effective altruist, I'd rather my money go toward developing countries, where it can produce more good. Being deserving of something is insufficient to actually receive when limited resources are at play.
This second problem is that there are countless other possible relationships out there that would take far less effort to cultivate. Cookies in the tray are easy to pick up, and as rare as the cookie that lies upon the floor may be, I am already content with the cookies already in my possession, and there very well may be equally rare cookies still in the package. The effort of cleaning and repairing the dropped cookie is just too high a price to pay.
I love her. In our culture, this usually means I should 'fight' for her. "Love conquers all." It's considered romantic to overcome obstacles and 'win the girl'. But I honestly believe that is all bullshit. Yes, I love her, but I also love others. She and I might have equally fulfilling relationships elsewhere. Neither I nor she is so unique as to be undiscoverable elsewhere. I love her, but being with her is like starting a race with a heavy backpack on. There is so much negativity to overcome, and the benefit from overcoming it is solely that we get one another. Sure, I am special, as is she, but we are not so special that fixing a crumbled cookie is worth the immense effort, given limited resources. Wouldn't she be better off with another, someone whom she would not have to go through this effort?
So, yes, I have regret. But the regret is that I made the error in the first place. I don't think I have regret for my choice to not complicate my life by trying to work it out with her. Perhaps, with time, we might rekindle. It would require time to heal the feeling of violation she felt, and time for me to be more certain that I would not risk running with scissors. I would like that, if it happened in time. But regardless of how much I love her, I cannot justify going through such immense effort. We do not live in a fairy tale world where each person is assigned a soul mate. There are plenty of people out there for her, just as there are plenty out there for me. It makes little sense to pay such an exorbitant price to continue this specific relationship when so many other cookies in the container require no such additional effort.
I have regret. I regret that the relationship seems to have ended. I regret and mourn the loss. But I honestly believe I'm acting appropriately in the moment by just moving on. (Cognitive dissonance be damned.)