2012. Vol.3, No.9, 657-665
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 657
How Do I Regret Thee? Let Me Count My Alternatives: Regret
and Decision Making in Intimate Relationships
Richard E. Mattson, Ana M. Franco-Watkins, Karlene Cunningham
Department of Psychology, Auburn University, Auburn, USA
Received June 14th, 2012; revised July 12th, 2012; accepted August 10th, 2012
It is unsurprising when dissatisfied couples separate, but happy couples also dissolve their relationship. A
hypothesized precursor to such outcomes is the availability of a better alternative partner. The current
study examined regret over one’s current partner selection as the possible mechanism by which better al-
ternatives leads to partner switching in otherwise happy unions. An undergraduate sample (N = 94) was
administered several questionnaires; which included measures of partner regret, relationship satisfaction,
the availability of more attractive alternative partners, and the probability of switching to an alternative in
the future. For relatively satisfied individuals, the presence of a better alternative elicited regrets about
their currently selected partner that, in turn, predicted greater hypothetical intentions to partner switch.
Less satisfied individuals also endorsed partner regret, but irrespective of whether a current alternative
was actually available. Only relatively satisfied individuals without more attractive alternatives endorsed
low partner regret and, subsequently, greater intentions to remain in their current relationship.
Keywords: Regret; Intimate Relationships; Decision Making; Social Exchange; Attractive Alternatives;
Relationship Satisfaction
It is common to compare one’s actual choices with real or
imagined alternatives. One potential consequence of this com-
parison process is regret: A negative affective experience that
ensues when one’s choice is viewed as less favorable than pos-
sible or hypothesized alternatives (Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2009).
Though aversive, the emotional salience of experienced regret
may lead to improved decision making in the future. Specifi-
cally, it can help prevent the same mistakes from recurring and
may direct people to conceivably better alternative options in
future situations (see Roese & Summerville, 2005).
The phenomenon of regret is relevant to many areas of psy-
chological research, especially those that involve decision mak-
ing. Indeed, studies demonstrate the influence of regret on im-
portant choices ranging from financial (De Bondt & Thaler,
1994) to health-care decisions (Brehaut et al., 2003), as well as
on consumer behavior (Tsiros & Mittal, 2000). However, re-
grets pertaining to intimate partner decision making remain
mostly unexplored. This is somewhat surprising given that
decisions about romantic partnerships are some of the most
impactful choices individuals make. Moreover, romantic rela-
tionships are reported amongst people’s biggest regrets (Roese
& Summerville, 2005). It is also notable that the putative
mechanism underlying many stay-leave decisions in romantic
relationships is the same comparative judgment that leads to the
experience of regret. Namely, the comparison between one’s
current partner and a more attractive alternative is one of the
primary determinants of relationship instability [see Levinger
(1965) for a theoretical account; and Le & Agnew (2003) for
empirical support].
If experienced regret influences stay-leave decisions in inti-
mate relationships, then its integration into models of relation-
ship decision making may provide new and complimentary
directions for research. The present study explored whether the
presence of a more attractive alternative underscored intentions
to partner switch by eliciting partner regret in otherwise satis-
fied individuals. Also, for those without any current alternatives,
it was examined whether lower (versus higher) levels of rela-
tionship satisfaction led to more (versus less) partner regret and,
consequently, greater hypothetical intentions to switch partners
in the future. The proceeding section is a focused primer on
social exchange theory (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959)—the basis for
contemporary thinking on relationship decision making. Sub-
sequently, these concepts are integrated with contemporary
models of regret, from which are derived specific hypotheses
about how and under what circumstances partner regret might
influence intimate partner decision making.
The Social Exchange Model of Partner Decision
Thibaut and Kelley (1959) hypothesized that individuals
evaluate the quality of their relationship against two criteria.
The first is the comparison level (CL): “The standard by which
the person evaluates the rewards and costs of a given relation-
ship in terms of what [s]he feels [s]he ‘deserves’” (Thibaut &
Kelley, 1959: p. 21). Deriving from this basis is the construct of
relationship satisfaction; a subjective estimation of the differ-
ence between an individual’s idiosyncratic cost-benefit standard
(i.e., the CL) and the relationship’s actual outcomes. Note that
the CL is akin to an individual’s expectations (e.g., McNulty &
Karney, 2002), whereas satisfaction concerns the confirmation
or disconfirmation of expectations for better or worse (e.g.,
Fletcher, Simpson, Thomas, & Giles, 1999).
Dissatisfied individuals (i.e., those experiencing outcomes
below expectations) do not necessarily dissolve their relation-
ship. Rather, this decision is also contingent upon the perceived
cost-benefit ratio of other available partners, which is the sec-
ond criterion for evaluating the relationship termed the com-
parison level for alternatives (CLalt). Even dissatisfied indi-
viduals will maintain their current relationship if the quality of
its outcomes (e.g., sexual satisfaction, social support, etc.) still
exceeds those obtainable elsewhere. The CLalt is also relevant
to relationships in which an individual is satisfied. Specially,
except when significant barriers to dissolution are present (e.g.,
financial dependence), satisfied individuals will also opt in
favor of some alternative partnership if they believe it will con-
fer more favorable relationship outcomes (Levinger, 1965).
Taken together, irrespective of how satisfied a person is with
his or her relationship, if the “present… partnership is strik-
ingly less favorable than the alternatives, he or she will opt for
one of the alternatives if the cost of the exchange (barrier) does
not obliterate the advantage to be obtained” (Urdy, 1981: p.
Regret in Stay-Leave Decisions
Recent studies on relationship decision making have mainly
focused on relationship-maintaining phenomena typically re-
ferred to as commitment devices (e.g., Gonzaga, Haselton,
Smurda, Davies, & Poore, 2008). Commitment devices com-
prise various affective responses (e.g., love; Maner et al., 2008)
and cognitive processes (e.g., derogation of alternatives; Simp-
son, Gangestad, & Lerma, 1990) that help override inclinations
towards an attractive alternative’s immediate, but less mean-
ingful rewards (e.g., physical attractiveness) in favor of the
long-term value conferred by the present committed relation-
ship. Yet, relative to those processes helping to maintain a rela-
tionship in the face of an attractive alternative, the cognitive-
affective mechanisms that facilitate a decision to leave one’s
partner are not well understood.
One candidate mechanism is the cognitive-affective experi-
ence of regret. Similar to the CLalt, regret involves the evalua-
tion of differences between chosen outcomes and those pro-
duced by alternatives (Bell, 1982). However, contemporary
theories of regret extend beyond a comparative judgment to
include additional cognitive and emotional mechanisms that tie
the process of comparison to subsequent decision making
(Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). For example, regret involves up-
ward counterfactual thinking, the mental negation of prior be-
havior and the imagined improvement in outcomes pursuant to
possible alternative actions. Also, according to Boninger, Glei-
cher, and Strathman (1994), these thoughts provide the cogni-
tive basis for the “additional, poignant kind of unhappiness
associated with knowing that the negative outcome could have
been avoided” (p. 297) if a different decision were made.
The negative affective component of regret may connect un-
favorable appraisals of one’s actual choice (relative to alterna-
tives) with particular corrective actions in the future (e.g.,
product switching; Inman, Dyer, & Jia, 1997). In other words,
the experience of regret may supply the motivational fuel for
corrective behaviors. This idea is consistent with the more ge-
neral notion that affective experiences influence judgment and
play important roles in real-life decision making (see Peters,
Västfjäll, Gärling, & Slovic, 2006). With respect to judgments
and decisions about intimate partnerships, regret may ensue
from an unfavorable comparison between one’s current choice
and alternative options, thereby supplying the impetus for cor-
rective action. More specifically, partner regret may link the
presence of a higher quality alternative with the intention to
partner switch. Thus, opponent to those processes that help
maintain commitment, partner regret may be the operative cog-
nitive-affective mechanism that facilitates partner switching
when an individual believes that an attractive alternative will
confer greater long-term dividends.
Importantly, however, the presence of a better alternative op-
tion is not necessary for experiencing regret when individuals
are dissatisfied. In general, poor outcomes relative to expecta-
tions—the conditions for dissatisfaction—spontaneously pro-
duce the upward counterfactual thoughts underlying regret even
in the absence of current alternatives (Markman, Gavanski,
Sherman, & McMullen, 1993). As such, individuals dissatisfied
with their relationship may experience regret because their
current partner is either compared to a foregone alternative (e.g.,
“If I had only dated Sue instead of Sally”) or appears less fa-
vorable than being alone (e.g., “Had I only not dated Sue”). In
either case, individuals in dissatisfying relationships may en-
dorse regrets about their partnership, which may in turn gener-
ate prescriptions for future decision making regardless of
whether an alternative option is currently available. In contrast,
outcomes that exceed expectations do not lead to spontaneous
upward counterfactuals (e.g., Sanna & Turley, 1996), as satis-
fied individuals are potentially unmotivated to imagine scenar-
ios that could undermine their present contentment. However, if
a more attractive alternative is made salient, regrets may ensue
and even a satisfied individual may intend to switch partners
(also see, Tsiros & Mittal, 2000).
An Integrative Model of Partner Regret in
Relationship Decision Making
The proposed model contends that partner regret precedes
behavioral intentions to partner switch, but may variably result
from the unfavorable comparison of one’s current partner to
either an internal standard (i.e., the CL) or an external compa-
rator (i.e., the CLalt). When outcomes fall below expectations
(i.e., the CL), dissatisfaction results and individuals need no
external comparison point (i.e., an actual alternative) to experi-
ence partner regret. That is, partner regret may emerge as indi-
viduals fantasize about an actual, forgone, or imagined attract-
tive alternative. Likewise, they may envision the relative bene-
fits of being single. By contrast, when individuals are satisfied
(i.e., outcomes fall above the CL); the only potential generator
of partner regret is a better alternative. It follows that only for
those currently satisfied with their relationship will the presence
of an attractive alternative be uniquely predictive of stay-leave
decisions. Furthermore, only those without better options and
who are relatively satisfied with their relationship will endorse
few partner regrets and, thus, express little desire to exit their
current relationship. Taken together, if partner regret motivates
intentions to partner switch, then partner regret should mediate
the association between a) an attractive alternative and inten-
tions to partner switch under conditions of high satisfaction and
b) the association between low relationship satisfaction and
intentions to partner switch in the absence of attractive alterna-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
The Current Study
Although theory and research implicate attractive alternatives
as a predictor of relationship instability, few mediating mecha-
nisms have been explored. The present goal was to examine the
role of partner regret as a potential mediator within the broader
social exchange framework for intimate partner decision-mak-
ing. The potential contribution of partner regret to models of
relationship decision making lies in a) specifying the affective
link between evaluative judgments about the relationship and
behavioral intentions to exchange partners and b) identifying
some of the conditions under and mechanisms by which attrac-
tive alternatives and relationship dissatisfaction are more or less
relevant to stay-leave decisions.
Two overarching hypotheses were tested. First, it was hy-
pothesized that partner regret would mediate the association
between having an attractive alternative and a greater intent to
partner switch, but only for those relatively satisfied with their
current relationship. This is because partner regret in less satis-
fying relationship is likely even without an external comparator,
whereas more satisfied individuals would only experience
partner regret in light of a more attractive option. Second, it
was predicted that high versus low relationship satisfaction
would only differentiate individuals in terms of partner regret
for those without an attractive alternative. Specifically, it was
hypothesized that increased partner regret would mediate the
association between low relationship satisfaction and greater
hypothetical intentions to partner switch, but only for those
currently without a better available alternative. This is because
individuals without an attractive alternative will base the eva-
luation of their relationship outcomes against an internal stan-
dard (i.e., the CL), and only those with outcomes falling below
expectations will experience partner regret.
Given that regret is most likely to influence behavior when
potential alternatives are many and corrective action is still
possible, the population of university students in premarital and
dating relationships was sampled. These individuals are ex-
posed to numerous alternatives and likely have few barriers to
relationship dissolution. Furthermore, the university setting is
perhaps the quintessential marriage marketplace, wherein indi-
viduals continually evaluate and compare potential mates with-
in their current geographic proximity (Fossett & Kiecolt, 1991)
at a time when the formation of intimate relationships is a pri-
mary developmental task (Furman & Shaffer, 2003).
In addition, for a more rigorous test of our hypotheses, se-
veral additional variables were statistically controlled; such as
dispositional tendencies to regret life decisions, as well as sev-
eral individual and relationship factors representing potential
third variables (e.g., relationship length). Also statistically con-
trolled was the amount of resources invested in the relation-
ship—both tangible (e.g., shared finances) and abstract (e.g.,
time and effort)—that would be lost or diminished should the
relationship dissolve. Likewise, commitment level—the subjec-
tive experience of connectedness to one’s partner—was also ac-
counted for in the model. Both investment and commitment are
uniquely associated with an individual’s decision to stay or
leave a relationship and can mitigate the influence of an attrac-
tive alternative on relationship instability (Le & Agnew, 2003).
It was therefore important to provide some evidence that the
proposed effects are robust across individuals differing in their
level of commitment to and investment in their romantic rela-
Participants and Procedures
Ninety-four undergraduate participants (12 males and 82 fe-
males) from a Southeastern University participated in the study.
Participants were recruited through flyers placed on campus,
announcements made in undergraduate classes, and through the
Psychology Department’s online recruitment system. Partici-
pants were required to be 19 years old or older and in a mono-
gamous heterosexual relationship. Those that met these criteria
were invited to the lab and ran individually. Each completed
several computer-administered questionnaires and cognitive
tasks assessing relationship-relevant variables (some unrelated
to the current analyses) that were set up in advance by a re-
search assistant. Administration of the questionnaires was coun-
terbalanced and took approximately 45 minutes to complete.
Participants chose either extra credit or $10 for compensation.
The sample comprised individuals in casual dating relation-
ships (n = 7), serious dating relationships (n = 82), or who were
engaged to be married (n = 5); with the average relationship
length, in months, being 4.1 (SD = 2.9), 22.3 (SD = 17.6), and
24.8 (SD = 11.4), respectively. Participants’ mean age was 20.3
(SD = 1.0), with the majority of the sample identifying as Cau-
casian (89.2%). The remaining participants identified as Afri-
can American (7.5%), Native American (1.1%), Latino-His-
panic (1.1), or Other (1.1%). Approximately 2% of the sample
lived together; 51% lived separately but spent nights together:
rarely (21%), frequently (13%), or almost always (17%); 15%
lived separately and did not spend nights together; and 32%
were in long-distance relationships.
Dispositional Regret
The 5-item Regret Scale developed by Schwartz et al. (2002)
was used to measure an individual’s dispositional tendency to
experience regret (e.g., When I think about how I’m doing in
life, I often assess opportunities I have passed up). Participants
respond to each item using a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging
from 0 (completely disagree) to 6 (completely agree) with pos-
sible scores ranging from 0 to 30. The observed range was 0 to
25 (M = 18.8, SD = 4.8); α = 0.75.
Partner Regret
The Partner Regret Scale (PRS) was developed for this study
by adapting items from Schwartz et al.’s (2002) measure to
assess regret specific to partner selection (see the Appendix)
using the same 7-point scale. This approach afforded two nota-
ble advantages. First, it helped equate the measures of disposi-
tional and partner-specific regret on extraneous psychometric
characteristics: This helps prevent differences in measurement
from confounding the interpretation of any significant effects.
Second, the items from Schwartz et al.’s measure capture dif-
ferent facets of regret’s operational domain. For example, some
items tap retrospective or contemporaneous regrets driven by
commission (e.g., “I sometimes feel like I chose the wrong per-
son when I find out about… a previous or potential relationship
partner… ”), whereas others focus more so on omission-based
regret (e.g., “… I often assess opportunities I have passed up.”).
Nevertheless, a principal components analysis showed that the
PRS items loaded onto a single construct accounting for 69% of
the response variability (loadings ranged from 0.75 to 0.87).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 659
Taken together, items on the PRS cover a range of content from
the one-dimensional construct of partner regret. Total scores
ranged from 0 to 27 (M = 12.9, SD = 7.1); α = 0.89.
Attractive Alternatives
The measure of attractive alternatives was based on Miller’s
(1997) definition of realistic alternatives, the number of “peo-
ple who you might be interested in dating and who might be
interested in dating you” (p. 760). However, this operation was
extended by asking participants, “… of these, for how many
would you consider leaving your current partner”. This latter
question was most appropriate for testing the proposed model,
which was that partner regret ensues when the value of the CLalt
for the alternative exceeds the reward value associated with
one’s current partner. Approximately one quarter of the sample
endorsed having at least one alternative that is more attractive
than their current partner; only two individuals endorsed more
than one and so this variable was dichotomized to simplify
interpretation of the results.
Relationship Satisfaction
The 4-item Couple Satisfaction Index (CSI4: Funk & Rogge,
2007) was used to measure relationship satisfaction. Item stems
directly tap the relative favorability of an individual’s subject-
tive evaluative judgment of his or her relationship (e.g., Please
indicate the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your
relationship). Summed scores can range from 0 to 28, with high-
er scores being indicative of greater satisfaction. The CSI4 scores
presently ranged from 5 to 28 (M = 22.3, SD = 5.1); α = 0.96.
Relationship Investment and Commitment
The Investment and Commitment subscales of the Invest-
ment Model Scale (IMS; Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998) were
also administered. The 5-item Investment subscale contains
items that assess the resources attached to the relationship that
would be lost or diminished should the relationship terminate
[e.g., Many aspects of my life have become linked to my partner
(recreational activities, etc.)]. The Commitment subscale con-
tains 7 items that assess one’s subjective orientation towards
the relationship (e.g., “I feel very attached to our relationship,
very strongly linked to my partner”) and its maintenance (e.g.,
I am committed to maintaining my relationship with my part-
ner”). Items on both subscales are rated on a 5-point Likert
continuum with qualitative anchors of 1 (Dont Agree at All)
and 5 (Agree Completely). Current scores on the Investment
scale ranged from 6 to 25 (M = 17.5, SD = 4.4), α = 0.78; and,
on the Commitment scale, from 7 to 35 (M = 28.6, SD = 7.1), α
= 0.93.
Hypothetical Likelihood of Partner Switching
The criterion was phrased as a hypothetical to create vari-
ability in behavioral intentions for individuals without current
alternatives: “Hypothetically, if someone significantly better
than your current partner was interested in you, what is the
probability that you would end your current relationship”. Par-
ticipants rated this question on a probability scale ranging from
0% to 100%: M = 27.7%, SD = 29.6.
Planned Analyses
Study hypotheses were tested using a moderated-mediation
analysis that was executed with the MODMED SPSS macro
developed by Preacher, Rucker, and Hayes (2007). This ap-
proach tests moderated-mediation effects across two OLS re-
gression models. The first model estimates the hypothesized
moderation effects, which in this case pertain to the interaction
between relationship satisfaction (low versus high) and attract-
tive alternatives (present = 1; absent = 0) on partner regret. It
was predicted that a) relatively satisfied individuals with an
alternative would experience greater partner regret than com-
parably satisfied individuals without an alternative; and b) rela-
tively dissatisfied individuals without a more attractive alterna-
tive will experience more partner regret than more satisfied
individuals who are also without alternatives.
The second model, which builds off the first, regresses hy-
pothetical intentions to partner switch on relationship satisfac-
tion, attractive alternatives, and their interaction; as well as
partner regret (the proposed mediator). The obtained regression
weights are then used to examine whether the proposed media-
tion effects vary across levels of a given moderator (i.e., attract-
tive alternatives or relationship satisfaction). Currently tested
was whether a) the effect of an attractive alternative on hypo-
thetical intentions to partner switch by way of increased partner
regret (mediation) occurred only for individuals endorsing
higher relationship satisfaction (moderated-mediation 1); and b)
the indirect effect of relationship satisfaction on intentions to
partner switch through partner regret (mediation) occurred only
when no alternatives were present (moderated-mediation 2).
Mediation effects were calculated using the Sobel method and a
bootstrapping approach (1000 samples) was employed to obtain
less biased parameter estimates.
Data Preparation
Statistically controlled in the model were relationship length
and status, participant’s and partner’s age, gender, cohabitation
status, and whether or not the relationship was long-distance.
Cohabitating and long-distance relationships were coded as 1
(otherwise 0). Relationship status was constructed as an ordinal
variable, with higher values representing a greater degree of
commitment (engaged = 2) than lower values (casual dating =
0). All the continuous variables were normally distributed (or
transformation did not alter the pattern of results). Continuous
predictors were standardized to facilitate interpretation. There
were no univariate or multivariate outliers and the assumptions
of OLS regression were met.
Preliminary Analyses
Confirmatory factor analyses were run to ensure the appro-
priateness of the proposed measurement model. Specifically,
the model a) regressed items from the PRS and CSI onto sepa-
rate, but oblique (i.e., correlated) latent variables representing
partner regret and satisfaction, respectively; and b) included
attractive alternatives and intentions to partner switch as sepa-
rate single-indicator variables that were allowed to intercorre-
late with each other and with both latent factors. In effect, this
model tests whether the constructs of primary interest—and the
observables chosen to measure them—actually represented
correlated, but ultimately distinct phenomena. This model was a
good fit to the data (see Table 1). Two additional models were
run to provide a comparison. The first specified all of the ob-
served variables onto a single latent construct, which provided a
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Table 1.
Confirmatory factor analytic fit indices for the hypothesized and com-
parison measurement models.
Fit Indices
Model x2(df) x
Hypothesized Model 41.83 (37) 1.13 0.93 0.04 0.069
Comparison Model 1 157.41 (43)** 3.68 0.87 0.17 0.09
Comparison Model 2 151.35 (43)** 3.53 0.88 0.17 0.09
Note: N = 94. CFI = Comparative Fit Index; RMSEA = Root Mean Square Error
of Approximation; SRMR = Standardized Root Mean Square Residual. Although
the criteria for acceptable fit somewhat vary; CFI values above 0.90 generally
represent good fitting models; as do RMSEA and SRMR values under 0.07 and
x2/df less than 2. Statistically significant x2 values indicate a poor fitting model;
**p < 0.01.
poor fit. The second model specified the CSI and PRS items as
a single latent variable, but attractive alternatives and intentions
to partner switch were included as separate single-indicator
variables (all of which were allowed to intercorrelate). This
model was also a poor fit to the observed data, and the use of
appropriate modification indices did not substantially improve
model fit in either case. Taken together, these findings suggest
that the current measures of partner regret, relationship satisfac-
tion, attractive alternatives, and hypothetical intentions to part-
ner switch represent separate underlying constructs.
Moderated Mediation Analysis
The simple and interaction effects of attractive alternatives
and relationship satisfaction on partner regret were estimated
first. The simple effect for attractive alternatives and relation-
ship satisfaction were both significant, as was their interaction
(see Table 2). As predicted, individuals high in satisfaction, but
without attractive alternatives, experienced significantly less
partner regret than their counterparts with attractive alternatives.
Also, individuals without attractive alternatives demonstrated
higher levels of partner regret when relationship satisfaction
was low versus high (see Figure 1).
To obtain the regression weights for the mediation tests, hy-
pothetical intentions to partner switch were regressed onto
partner regret, relationship satisfaction, attractive alternatives,
the interaction term, and the control predictors. (The results are
displayed in Table 2). It was then examined if the effect of
attractive alternatives on hypothetical intentions to partner
switch was mediated by partner regret, with this indirect effect
being conditional on higher levels of relationship satisfaction
(moderated-mediation 1). The results supported the hypothesis:
Partner regret mediated the influence of attractive alternatives,
with the effects of the former on the likelihood of partner swit-
ching being statistically significant for more highly satisfied
participants (+1SD), β = 17.15 (SE = 8.10), p < 0.05, but not for
those comparatively less satisfied (1SD), β = 4.97 (SE = 3.54),
It was then examined whether or not relationship (dis)sat-
isfaction predicted hypothetical intentions by way of partner
regret when no better alternatives were available (moderated-
mediation 2). These findings supported the hypothesis.
Specifically, lower relationship satisfaction predicted higher
partner regret and, subsequently, greater hypothetical probabil-
ities of partner switching when attractive alternatives were ab-
sent, β = –10.14 (SE = 4.17), p < 0.05. Partner regret did not
Low Satisfaction High Satisfaction
Partner Regret
No Alternatives
At Least One
Figure 1.
Interaction effect for relationship satisfaction and attractive al-
ternatives in predicting partner regret.
significantly mediate the association between relationship sat-
isfaction and outcomes when alternatives were present; β =
–3.75 (SE = 2.57), ns. In other words, higher partner regret
linked the association between lower relationship satisfaction
and greater hypothetical intentions to partner switch only for
individuals currently without a better alternative.
The results highlight that partner regrets emerge either when
individuals are unsatisfied with their relationship or when rela-
tively satisfied individuals have a better alternative. Although
some unsatisfied individuals also had better alternatives, their
levels of partner regret were fairly indistinguishable from their
unsatisfied but option-less counterparts. As theorized, this is
perhaps because less satisfied individuals have a number of
different reference points that could elicit the upward counter-
factuals underlying partner regret, such as foregone alternatives
or unmet expectations. In other words, presently having a better
alternative may be nonessential for experiencing partner regret
as relationship satisfaction declines. By comparison, more sat-
isfied individuals may be disinclined to view their partner less
favorably than forgone alternatives or being alone. Thus, only a
presently better alternative serves as a relevant comparison
point. As such, only individuals who were relatively satisfied
and without a more attractive alternative experienced little in
the way of partner regret and, thus, had little intention to part-
ner switch in the future.
In one sense, partner regret may ultimately serve the same
function as a commitment device: To maximize the individual’s
long-term relationship outcomes. However, commitment de-
vices accomplish this by preventing the exchange of larger
delayed relationship benefits for shorter-term rewards, whereas
partner regret fosters better long-term outcomes by facilitating a
current switch to a more suitable alternative. This notion may
provide an adjunctive explanation for the modest correlation
between relationship satisfaction and whether a relationship
dissolves (see Karney & Bradbury, 1995). An existing account
is that barriers to relationship dissolution prevent some dissatis-
fied individuals from otherwise leaving their partnerships, thus
creating statistical noise at the distressed end of the continuum
(Previti & Amato, 2003). However, attenuation may also occur
because some highly satisfied individuals abandon their rela-
tionships in the presence of relatively more attractive alterna-
tives when motivated by partner regret.
Facilitating a switch to a more suitable alternative may be
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 661
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Table 2.
OLS regression findings for the moderation and mediation models.
Moderator Model Mediator Model
Criterion: PRS Criterion: Probability of Partner Switching
Predictor Variables β (SE) t sr2 β (SE) t sr2
PRS - - - 13.50 (4.56) 2.96*** 0.23
Alternatives 5.88 (1.43) 4.12** 0.24 11.56 (9.05) 1.28 0.10
CSI4 5.36 (0.57) 9.34** 0.54 3.43 (4.78) 0.72 0.06
CSI4 × Alternatives 3.26 (1.12) 2.91** 0.17 2.28 (6.79) 0.34 0.03
Control Variables β (SE) t sr2 β (SE) t sr2
Gender 2.00 (1.28) 1.56 0.09 0.65 (7.48) 0.09 0.01
Age 0.19 (0.51) 0.38 0.02 0.48 (2.95) 0.16 0.01
Partner Age 0.16 (0.54) 0.29 0.02 0.62 (3.09) 0.20 0.02
Dispositional Regret 2.02 (0.46) 4.43** 0.25 1.26 (2.94) 0.43 0.03
Relationship Status 0.84 (1.26) 0.67 0.04 0.87 (7.25) 0.12 0.01
Relationship Length 0.62 (0.44) 1.40 0.08 5.61 (2.58) 2.17** 0.17
Long Distance 0.35 (0.97) 0.36 0.02 3.10 (5.59) 0.55 0.04
Cohabitation 0.99 (1.20) 0.82 0.05 4.93 (6.95) 0.71 0.06
IMS-Investment 0.29 (0.59) 0.49 0.03 3.54 (3.37) 1.05 0.08
IMS-Commitment 0.48 (0.56) 0.86 0.05 5.77 (3.23) 1.79 0.14
Note: N = 94. All continuous predictor and control variables were standardized so regression weights represent the expected increase in the criterion per a one standard
deviation increase (from the mean) in a predictor. CSI4 = 4-item Couples Satisfaction Index; IMS = Investment Model Scale; and PRS = Partner Regret Scale. sr2 =
squared semipartial correlation; *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01 (two-tailed).
only one way in which partner regret can lead to better
long-term relationship outcomes. For example, even when no
better alternative is currently present, partner regret may be
useful in averting increased investment in and commitment to
unsatisfying relationships. Research by Ku (2008) showed that
negative outcomes following increased commitment to finan-
cial decisions elicited post-choice regret; which, in turn, led to a
deescalation of commitment. When applied to the context of
intimate relationships, these findings suggest that the experi-
ence of partner regret may help prevent unsatisfied individuals
from throwing good love after bad.
Notably, neither relationship satisfaction nor attractive alter-
natives significantly predicted intentions to partner switch when
controlling for partner regret; evoking Baron and Kenny’s
(1986) concept of complete mediation. Although relationship
satisfaction and attractive alternatives involve different refer-
ence points (i.e., the CL and CLalt, respectively), the present
findings suggest that partner regret may be the affective inter-
mediary that links both types of comparative judgments to in-
timate partner decision-making. Moreover, partner regret sig-
nificantly predicted hypothetical stay-leave intentions when
controlling for these and other relevant constructs (e.g., rela-
tionship investment). One explanation is that the unique effects
of partner regret stemmed from the way in which attractive
alternatives were measured. Specifically, we did not assess how
much more attractive were the alternatives. Possibly, as the
relative quality of a more attractive alternative increased; so too
did the amount of regret an individual experienced over their
current partner selection. Only controlled for was the presence
versus absence of an alternative (and not degree of relative
quality); so there possibly remained criterion-relevant variabi-
lity in the measure of partner regret for those with more attract-
tive alternatives. It is also possible, however, that there are
some unique properties of partner regret that are not reducible
to either of its hypothesized precursors (i.e., being unsatisfied
or having better options).
Strengths and Limitations
Although many of the constructs under investigation were
similar in nature, it is unlikely that the present findings were an
artifact of any overlap in their formulation or assessment. In-
deed, any degree of overlap would have increased Type II error.
Specifically, shared explanatory variance is omitted from the
regression weights; reducing the amount of criterion-relevant
variance left in the individual predictors. This would make their
hypothesized unique effects more difficult to detect and, thus,
cannot serve as an alternative interpretation for their significant
associations with the criteria. Furthermore, the proposed meas-
urement model was validated using a confirmatory approach,
thus providing empirical support for the distinction between the
variables and their respective indicators. Taken together, the
careful approach to measurement enhanced internal validity and
is therefore a point of strength to the current study.
Nevertheless, inferring causality is still difficult because the
hypothesized effects were necessarily constrained by a correla-
tional design. Ultimately, some degree of internal validity must
be conceded because the presence or absence of a more attrac-
tive alternative cannot be randomly assigned (for somewhat
obvious reasons). Even if this were possible, doing so would
effectively bolster internal validity at the expense of external
validity (as random assignment of alternative partners is
unlikely in any naturalistic setting). However, attempts were
made to strengthen the internal validity of the present design in
two primary ways. The first is that extraneous factors that could
otherwise provide alternative accounts for the findings were
statistically controlled. That all potentially relevant variables
were included in the model is, of course, uncertain. However,
the findings were indeed robust when accounting for the most
apparently relevant third variables (e.g., relationship length,
investment, etc.).
The other way in which inferential power was bolstered was
in specifying, a priori, a network of particular effects derived
from an explicit theoretical model. According to Cochran
(1965), that the hypothesized pattern emerged as predicted not
only supports the proposed model; but also makes it more dif-
ficult to generate alternative models that are a) as parsimonious
and b) also account for the overall pattern of demonstrated
effects in their entirety (for similar arguments, see Cohen,
Cohen, West, & Aiken, 2003). Nevertheless, any set of findings
must always be considered alongside the more general problem
with induction: You can never be completely sure there isnt
some model better than your own for what was observed.
Other aspects of this study also warrant further consideration.
First, the probability of switching to a more attractive partner
was measured as a hypothetical. This approach was used be-
cause a) the hypotheses compared stay-leave decision making
in those with and without an actual alternative presently avail-
able; and b) garnering enough option-less individuals who ul-
timately encountered a better alternative would require a ra-
ther extended longitudinal design to ensure adequate statistical
power (which seemed premature for such an exploratory en-
deavor). Also, the use of hypothetical decisional intentions as
outcomes is a fairly common design in regret research (e.g.,
Inman & Zeelenberg, 2002), and there is an established link
between anticipatory regret and future behavior (see Zeelenberg,
1999). Nevertheless, whether or not hypothetical probabilities
correspond to stay-leave decisions in intimate relationships
requires further investigation.
Second, the sample comprised dating and premarital relation-
ships; which, although appropriate to the research question,
leaves open the possibility that the present effects are largely
contingent upon the absence of significant barriers that would
preclude separation in other dyads (e.g., children). Despite evi-
dence that individuals remain open to alternative relationships
even while married (South, Trent, & Shen, 2001), and given
that relationship type, investments, and subjective commitment
level were statistically accounted for; subsequent research
should further examine if certain specific barriers to dissolution
represent significant boundary conditions to the presently ob-
served effects.
Third, it is hard to determine whether participants without
better alternatives were technically dissatisfied when partner
regrets began to develop, or just less satisfied relative to others
in the sample. This latter possibility seems more likely given
the relatively high average level of relationship satisfaction
endorsed by participants, which is not entirely surprising in
hindsight. Indeed, it is likely that college relationships are rela-
tively absent of the costs that potentially emerge as commit-
ment level increases (e.g., conflict over shared finances); as
well as have fewer barriers to dissolution and more frequent
contact with potential suitors. As such, the population overall
may contain few individuals that are entirely dissatisfied (i.e.,
high costs and low rewards) that have not already terminated
their relationship or exchanged partners. As such, participants
at the lower end of the current distribution may be better char-
acterized as relatively unsatisfied (i.e., low costs and low re-
wards). Nevertheless, these individuals reported partner regret
even though they may not have been entirely dissatisfied with
their relationship. As such, the observed effects still give sup-
port to the proposed model, but may further suggest that the
upward counterfactuals eliciting partner regret emerge more
gradually as relationship outcomes trend towards minimal ex-
Last, the implications for the present study are constrained by
the homogeneity of the sample. Most notable is the dispropor-
tionate amount of women in the sample, with the number of
men perhaps being insufficient to adequately control for gender
effects. Although Le and Agnew’s (2003) meta-analysis showed
no relevant gender differences in the directional or zero-order
associations between variables in the social exchange model
(e.g., attractive alternatives); there is some evidence for gender
differences in retrospective regrets about past intimate rela-
tionships (Roese et al., 2006). Specifically, men more frequent-
ly regret inaction (i.e., missed opportunities), whereas women
equally regret errors of commission and omission. However,
the present study focused on regrets pertaining to current, as
opposed to forgone alternatives; and the measure of partner
regret potentially captured both types of decisional errors.
Taken together, potential gender differences in regret may not
have substantially altered the present findings overall. More-
over, the inability to fully generalize the effects to all popula-
tions and settings does not undermine their internal validity,
and the current findings at least establish preliminary evidence
for the hypothesized role of partner regret in stay-leave deci-
Future Directions
The ultimate aim of the present study was to provide an ini-
tial bridge between the literatures on regret and relationship
decision making. In doing so, the current findings highlight the
need and provide the foundation for additional study in this area.
For example, this study focused solely on stay-leave decisions,
whereas Zeelenberg and Pieters (2007) suggest a number of
other possible sequelae of regret; such as delaying or avoiding a
decision or ensuring its reversibility. Likewise, there is consi-
derable evidence that the experience of regret, its anticipation,
and influence on decision making hinges on several situational
factors; such as when post-choice knowledge (versus ignorance)
about the outcomes of a foregone alternative is expected (Ritov
& Baron, 1995). Determining whether and how such findings
on regret translate into the context of intimate partner decision
making will likely be of interest to researchers across disci-
There are also many avenues of research that could expand
theoretical models of intimate partner decision making. For
instance, the current findings imply that research on counter-
factual thinking may interface with social exchange constructs.
The nature of specific upward and downward relationship
counterfactuals, as well as their influence on stay-leave deci-
sions, may prove to be an exciting area for additional study. As
an example, favorable evaluations of one’s current partner rela-
tive to potential or foregone alternatives (i.e., downward coun-
terfactuals) may elicit feelings of relief, which could foster
increased investment or commitment (Arriaga, personal com-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 663
munique; also see Connolly & Butler, 2006). Another possibi-
lity is to include other affective mechanisms in the social ex-
change model, which tends to focus more so on the cognitive
aspects of stay-leave decisions. Indeed, there is already experi-
mental and consumer research indicating that other of its cen-
tral constructs, such as satisfaction, have an affective basis (e.g.,
disappointment; Zeelenberg et al., 1998). Moreover, these af-
fective substrates may interact in theoretically meaningful ways.
For example, the experience of partner regret may be necessary
to instigate corrective action by overriding the experienced loss
tied to investments sunk in one’s current relationship. In any
case, these possible avenues for further investigation highlight
that the current findings not only connect intimate partner deci-
sion making with research on regret, but also with varied lite-
ratures relevant to judgment and decision making (e.g., eco-
nomics, cognitive psychology, etc.). Extending to intimate rela-
tionships the theoretical and empirical advances contained
therein (e.g., Decision Affect Theory; Mellers, Schwartz, Ho, &
Ritov, 1997) will likely broaden the conceptual horizon cur-
rently on offer from social exchange theory and its derivatives
(e.g., the Investment Model; Rusbult et al., 1998).
The dissolution of seemingly happy relationships might be a
byproduct of an unfavorable evaluation of one’s partner as
compared to alternatives, which increases the probability of
partner switching by eliciting partner regret. Moreover, the
presence of an attractive alternative may be unnecessary to
generate partner regret in less satisfied individuals, ostensibly
providing the link between conditions of lower satisfaction and
an increased likelihood of partner switching (should a better
alternative later emerge). Taken together, high relationship
satisfaction does not completely buffer against salient alterna-
tives, whereas their presence may not uniquely impinge on
relationship longevity when satisfaction is low and partner re-
grets are multiply determined. These findings highlight a place
for partner regret in social exchange models of intimate partner
decision making, building an initial bridge between their re-
spective literatures.
We would like to thank Kristopher J. Preacher for reviewing
this manuscript and providing feedback on our statistical
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable
distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic
and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 51, 1173-1182. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.51.6.1173
Bell, D. E. (1982). Regret in decision making under uncertainty. Op-
erations Research, 30, 931-981. doi:10.1287/opre.30.5.961
Boninger, D. S., Gleicher, F., & Strathman, A. (1994). Counterfactual
thinking: From what might have been to what might be. Journal of
Personality and Social P s y chology, 67, 297-307.
Brehaut, J. C., O’Connor, A. M., Wood, T. J., Hack, T. F., Siminoff, L.,
Gordon, E., & Feldman-Stewart, D. (2003). Validation of a decision
regret scale. Medical Decision Making, 23, 281-292.
Cochran, W. G. (1965). The planning of observational studies of human
populations (with discussion). Journal of the Royal Statistical Society,
Series A, 128, 134-155.
Cohen, J., Cohen, P., West, S. G., & Aiken, L. S. (2003). Applied mul-
tiple regression/correlation analysis for the behavioral sciences (3rd
ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Connolly, T., & Butler, D. (2006). Regret in economic psychological
theories of choices. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19,
139-154. doi:10.1002/bdm.510
De Bondt, W. F. M., & Thaler, R. H. (1994). Financial decision-mak-
ing in markets and firms: A behavioral perspective. Cambridge, MA:
National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999).
Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 76, 72-89. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.1.72
Fossett, M. A., & Kiecolt, K. J. (1991). A methodological review of the
sex ratio: Alternatives for comparative research. Journal of Marriage
and Family, 53, 941-957. doi:10.2307/352999
Funk, J. L., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). Testing the ruler with item re-
sponse theory: Increasing precision of measurement for relationship
satisfaction with the couples satisfaction index. Journal of Family
Psychology, 21, 572-583. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.21.4.572
Furman, W., & Shaffer, L. (2003). The role of romantic relationships in
adolescent development. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic
relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical im-
plications (pp. 3-22). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What,
when, and why. Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.
Gonzaga, G. C., Haselton, M. G., Smurda, J., Davies, M., & Poore, J. C.
(2008). Love, desire, and the suppression of thoughts of romantic al-
ternatives. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 119-126.
Inman, J., Dyer, J. S., & Jia, J. (1997). A generalized utility model of
disappointment and regret effects on post-choice valuation. Market-
ing Science, 16, 97-111. doi:10.1287/mksc.16.2.97
Inman, J., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in repeat purchase versus
switching decisions: The attenuating role of decision justifiability.
Journal of Consumer Research , 29, 116-128. doi:10.1086/339925
Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of
marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and re-
search. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 3-34.
Ku, G. (2008). Learning to de-escalate: The effects of regret in escala-
tion of commitment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision
Making Processes, 105, 221-232. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.08.002
Le, B., & Agnew, C. R. (2003). Commitment and its theorized deter-
minants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Rela-
tionships, 10, 37-57. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00035
Levinger, G. (1965). Marital cohesiveness and dissolution: An integra-
tive review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 27, 19-28.
Maner, J. K., Rouby, D. A., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2008). Automatic inat-
tention to attractive alternatives: The evolved psychology of rela-
tionship maintenance. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 343-349.
Markman, K. D., Gavanski, I., Sherman, S. J., & McMullen, M. N.
(1993). The mental simulation of better and worse possible worlds.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 87-109.
McNulty, J. K., & Karney, B. R. (2002). Expectancy confirmation in
appraisals of marital interactions. Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, 28, 764-775. doi:10.1177/0146167202289006
Mellers, B. A., Schwartz, A., Ho, K., & Ritov, I. (1997). Decision af-
fect theory: Emotional reactions to the outcomes of risky options.
Psychological Science, 8, 423-429.
Miller, R. S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commit-
ment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 73, 758-766. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.73.4.758
Peters, E., Västfjäll, D., Gärling, T., & Slovic, P. (2006). Affect and
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 665
decision making: A “hot” topic. Journal of Behavioral Decision
Making, 19, 79-85. doi:10.1002/bdm.528
Preacher, K. J., Rucker, D. D., & Hayes, A. F. (2007). Addressing
moderated mediation hypotheses: Theory, methods, and prescriptions.
Multivariate Behavioral Research, 42, 185-227.
Previti, D., & Amato, P. R. (2003). Why stay married? Rewards, barri-
ers, and marital stability. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 561-
573. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00561.x
Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1995). Outcome knowledge, regret, and omission
bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 64,
119-127. doi:10.1006/obhd.1995.1094
Roese, N. J., Pennington, G., Coleman, J., Janicki, M., Li., N., & Ken-
rick, D. T. (2006). Sex differences in regret: All for love or some for
lust? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 770-780.
Roese, N. J., & Summerville, A. (2005). What we regret most... and
why. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1273-1285.
Rusbult, C. E., Martz, J. M., & Agnew, C. R. (1998). The Investment
Model Scale: Measuring commitment level, satisfaction level, quality
of alternatives, and investment size. Personal Relationships, 5, 357-
391. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00177.x
Sanna, L. J. and Turley, K. J. (1996). Antecedents to spontaneous
counterfactual thinking: Effects of expectancy violation and outcome
valence. Persona lity and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 906-919.
Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., &
Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a
matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83,
1178-1197. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1178
Simpson, J. A., Gangestad, S. W., & Lerma, M. (1990). Perception of
physical attractiveness: Mechanisms involved in the maintenance of
romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
59, 1192-1201. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.59.6.1192
South, S. J., Trent, K., & Shen, Y. (2001). Changing partners: Toward a
macrostructural-opportunity theory of marital dissolution. Journal of
Marriage and Family, 63, 743-754.
Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of
groups. Oxford: Wiley.
Tsiros, M., & Mittal, V. (2000). Regret: A model of its antecedents and
consequences in consumer decision making. Journal of Consumer
Research, 26, 401-417. doi:10.1086/209571
Udry, J. (1981). Marital alternatives and marital disruption. Journal of
Marriage and the Family, 43, 889-897. doi:10.2307/351345
Zeelenberg, M. (1999). Anticipated regret, expected feedback and be-
havioral decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making,
12, 93-106.
Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). A theory of regret regulation 1.0.
Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 3-18.
Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2009). On the consequences of mentally
simulating future foregone outcomes: A regret regulation perspective.
In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), The hand-
book of imagination and mental simulation (pp. 417-428). New York:
Psychology Press.
Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., van der Pligt, J., Manstead, A. S. R.,
van Empelen, P., & Reinderman, D. (1998). Emotional reactions to
the outcomes of decisions: The role of counterfactual thought in the
experience of regret and disappointment. Organizational Behavior
and Human Decision Processes, 75, 117-141.
Partner Regret Scale
1) I try to get information about how my life would be if I
stayed with a previous partner, as opposed to the one I’m with.
2) I think I might have found a better relationship partner if I
had kept looking instead of choosing to be with my current
3) I sometimes feel like I chose the wrong person when I find
out about how a previous or potential relationship partner is
4) When I think about how my current relationship is doing,
I often assess opportunities I have passed up.
5) I often fantasize about being in a relationship that is quite
different than the one I’m currently in.