woman showing regret
photo by grau codrin

I was surprised this month when a small study came out with a conclusion related to relationships and the major news sources actually reported it, well, somewhat accurately.  Lately, there’s been no shortage of misleading reporting on relationship-related studies, and particularly studies related to how men and women are different.  I’m getting pretty sick of hearing the old, tired line about how young feminist women are finding themselves dissatisfied in relationships, combined with the implicit “I told you so” in the journalist’s tone.

This new study, to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, focused on regret.  Among other things, the researchers asked a random sample of the American population to describe a major regret in their lives and then categorized those regrets into life areas.  The takeaway that reporters chose to lead with was the finding that romantic regrets are the most common, and that women are more likely to have romantic regrets, while men are more likely to have regrets about their careers.  I found the news stories to be pretty accurate as far as how they reported the study–the problem, this time, comes from how we’re trained to read the media.

Headlines like “Bad Romance: Women Regret Love Failures More Than Men” and “Most Women Regret Failed Relationships More Than Anything Else” might as well read “Breaking News: Gender Binary Still in Tact!”  For people who tend to skim, or just read the first paragraph of a story, the quick takeaway from this study is not only that women care more about romance and tend to be disappointed, but that there is a clear divide between how men and women think about relationships and about their regrets.  In fact, the study actually left a lot of questions, and doesn’t really prove that this is true.

The sample size was small–only about 76 respondents actually completed the survey, which was done by using random digit dialing to get a representative sample.  (The news articles tend to say only that 370 people were called, but a lot of those didn’t answer or didn’t complete the survey.)  The researchers were hoping to expand on previous studies that used college students as a population, since that group is younger and more educated than the population at large and might tend to experience regret differently.  They decided to look at how different demographic factors influence regret, which I applaud, but they didn’t really report on how those factors interact.

For example, those not currently in a relationship were more likely to have relationship regrets.  Were more of the women surveyed not currently in a relationship than the men, or was it about even?  Similarly, while the results were explained by women’s tendency to privilege social relationships more than men, I wonder if the opposite might be true.  If the women surveyed happened to be very successful in their careers, you wouldn’t expect them to have as many regrets about career.  Regret doesn’t necessarily match up to the area someone is most focused on–you might have more regrets about an area you don’t have time to focus on instead.

Another factor I’d be interested to know more about is the importance of social pressure.  In other words, are women feeling more pressured to care about relationships and do well in the romantic arena, and thus have more regrets when they don’t?  Or could social pressure be acting in a different way, encouraging women to enter into romantic relationships in a way or at a time that’s not right for them?  I would think that kind of pressure might tend to create regret if someone had an opportunity for a relationship style that felt right for them but weren’t able to overcome social pressure to be more “traditional,” or if someone entered into a “traditional” relationship due to societal expectations and later realized a tension between that relationship and personality.  Similarly, it would be interesting to know whether a woman’s family background, education, and hometown have any correlation with her regrets, but the study is simply too small to find anything out about the influence of these factors.

Finally, something you’ll find out about me as this column continues is that I have a bit of a hawk eye for essentializing gender, and for queer erasure.  While I don’t think this study necessarily presumes heterosexuality, there’s no data on the sexual orientation of those surveyed, and the way things are broken down by gender means that the reporting is necessarily going to fall along these lines as well.  Any time you compare men vs. women in the area of romantic relationships, I think there tends to be an assumption that men and women are in relationships with each other, and so the tension is between two competing relationship styles bumping up against each other in a relationship.  This isn’t a critique of the researchers, exactly, but of the way we tend to read research.  I think it’s a challenge to look at that quick headline grab and question the assumptions that pop up, but one worth pursuing.