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When The One Who Got Away Is The One You Left

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It's that time of year again. For regrets, resolving to do better next time, and making mends where amends need making. For many divorcees, the old wounds may have finally healed over enough to set foot out into the world again.

If you fall into the group of middle-aged "left" ones like me, it can be a particularly daunting undertaking. It's a natural salve to reflect on a time when the pickings weren't so slim--to the heartthrob who got away or college days when the traits that make the top of my wish list now --kind, loyal, handy with a screwdriver--weren't the ones that made it then. Contemplating the roads passed up can be a bittersweet task, too, especially when you realize that the ones who seemed too easy to catch back then, who'd be quite the catch now, are undoubtedly already caught.

Like one long-lost college love of mine named John who sealed my mother's approval when he leaned over her shoulder, oohing and ahhing while she stood at the stove stirring her spaghetti sauce. And kind, loyal Lenny who showed up at my dorm door with flowers in his hand and a song--literally--on his lips.

But I have no regrets. My college beaus did not have the genes to make either of my two daughters, and our courtships were brief. Still, the painful aftermath of a failed marriage tends to dredge up "what ifs," particularly at this time of year.

Little regrets are easy to deal with. But what about the big ones?

They say that spouses who go through divorce often have second thoughts, especially those who do the leaving. Sometimes those second thoughts bring couples back together before it's too late, what's old becoming new again. This can be particularly true when couples part, become friends and work out their problems before getting back together. In her survey of international couples, Nancy Kalish, author of Lost & Found Lovers, found that 6% of married couples in her study who divorced, eventually rekindled their love and re-wed.

What happens though when the one who got away, the spouse you left, is no longer available? When you come to your senses only to discover that your spouse has already united with someone new? What do you do with your regret then?

Bestselling author and psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman was recently asked for his advice in just such a situation. The "left" spouse contacted him because his cheating wife suddenly had a change of heart and wanted him back. She had ditched the guy for whom she'd left her husband originally and, after talking, the ex-husband realized he was still in love with his ex-wife, too. Only there was a problem: The ex-husband's "wonderful" new wife.

Not so fast, Neuman told him, concerned that the pair might be headed for an even bigger fall. After all, the ex-wife had dismantled one marriage and with her ex's help was now trying to dismantle another one. "Whether or not you've been physically intimate with your ex, you're still cheating on your present wife," Neuman advised. And while he thought it was possible that the cheating wife had genuine regret for her actions, Neuman said the ex-husband should get counseling before making any hasty decisions. Indeed, what if the couple reunited only to separate again? And how would that affect their children?

In the final analysis, Neuman said: "Keep a safe distance from your ex and stay in the present: be a good spouse to the woman you're married to."

Michael, a father of four from California, has a different approach for dealing with his regrets, one that does not include trying to break up his ex-wife's new relationship. It's called taking responsibility for what he did.

"I'm like your husband and broke up my family after 17 years," Michael told me. "It was the worst decision. My ex-wife and I had normal marriage issues and it was nothing that couldn't be overcome. I took the easy way out. I was unfaithful. It led to the break-up of our marriage."

Michael said his ex-wife and children were devastated. He and his lover ultimately broke up, but his ex-wife moved on to a stable new relationship. "I lost my self-respect," Michael quite candidly admitted with deep remorse in his voice. "I now wonder when things go wrong for my children how much of that is a consequence of the divorce."

But Michael isn't sitting idly by stewing with guilt either. "I'm changing," Michael said. He has a support group of spouses who have gone through what he has. He's trying to be the best father he can: "I talk with my kids. I work with them." And when he encounters others who are about to make similar mistakes, he shares his own story. "I want them to think about what they're doing and why they're doing it."

Finally, he wants to work for divorce reform in the United States. "No-fault divorce is ridiculous. It's too easy. I want to make a difference," he says, hoping that something productive can come out of what he calls the "mess" he made.

While making lemonade out of lemons is admirable, it makes better sense for couples to take commitment more seriously to begin with, before they reach the point of being faced with such a big fat regrets, and all the trouble that ensues in their wake. Indeed, if parents paused before jumping ship, might more marriages remain intact and actually turnaround in the "happiness" department? A major study headed up by University of Chicago professor Linda Waite suggests just such a result.

Forty years of skyrocketing divorce rates has demonstrated that spouses haven't been too successful in the patience department. So maybe it's time for the legal system to help them out once again. Time for state imposed waiting periods to wend their way back into law in every state, especially for couples with children. Waiting periods that will give couples plenty of time to carefully consider the decision to end their marriage before embarking on litigation. And while they're at it, how about also reinstating waiting periods for remarrying anyone else before the divorce decree is cold? That might help reduce divorce rates for second marriages, too, and give couples an added chance to reunite.