Context: You made the decision not to see a person any more. The relationship was good, you were both happy with one another but the one main stumbling block (for you) in the relationship was never dealt with. It remained, a permanent fixture, that forced you to make that sad, and final decision.

Is there a word, an idiom, or a famous line that expresses the sadness for something that might have been; e.g. a rich and fulfilling relationship. It's not nostalgia, because that expresses a wistfulness for the past.

Instead, you are wistful for the future.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 15:34

9 Answers 9


Perhaps acceptance captures some of the sense you're seeking (see painful acceptance below).

You try, and you try, and you try, until you reach the point where you can try no more. You have slowly come to the certain realization that you will never get what you want and need, that there's nowhere to go with the relationship, that there's no future.

You have two options: continue down the road to nowhere, or call it quits. You're not going to want to call it quits unless you believe, with all your heart, that you've done everything you could to make it work: that's the only way you're going to be able to sleep at night, knowing that you did everything you could.

When at last you reach the point of calling it quits, and you make the painful decision to end it, you resign yourself to the outcome, to a new and different future. You don't want to do it, you really don't, but you have no choice. The die is cast.

That's acceptance, at least as I imagine it in the context of your question.

You could call your feeling of "what might have been" a painful acceptance. It looks both backward (painful) and forward (acceptance).


Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way


It is heavily slanted to the father-son relationship but the phrase "the cat's in the cradle", and the song to which it refers, is probably the most powerful display of this emotion I know of in American culture.

A bit more abstract is "The road not taken" which refers to Robert Frosts poem of the same name. It captures the idea but leaves the details to your imagination.

  • I don't know whether to groan, smile, laugh or cry. But, can you regret something that did not happen in the future?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 14:39
  • @Mari-LouA Sure you can. Not exactly something that didn't happen, but something you didn't do. I have reached an age where regrets weigh and merit some consideration and I'd say that half of them are about omission, the feeling of not having done something you could.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 16:42
  • Not something you didn't do, but something you won't be able to do. I think the notion of "regrets" when responding to an invitation is pretty apt with reference to Mari-Lou A's question.
    – Misneac
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 0:26

As requested:

Of all the words of mice and men,
The saddest are “it might have been.”

From Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle Chap. 123.

I had originally thought Steinbeck’s novel title Of Mice and Men evoked this couplet (which is a mashup of lines by Whittier and some by Burns), and thus effectively evoked the expression “it might have been.” But the couplet apparently was not published as such till 1963, and Steinbeck’s novel came out in 1937. Alas . . . do I actually have to say it?


Our unfinished symphony” lacks the notion of absolute finality that you seek (after all, until one of the parties to the relationship/composers of the symphony dies, they could theoretically get back together and finish their symphony), ...

... but to the extent that one really wanted to, they could add to or paraphrase it to remove all doubt, perhaps as follows:

Grieve not for what might have been. Rather please try to think of it fondly as “our forever unfinished symphony.”;

Grieve not for what might have been. Rather please try to think of it fondly as “our never-/ne'er-to-be-finished symphony”;

Grieve not for what might have been. Rather please try to think of it fondly as "the never-/ne'er-to-be-composed notes/measures/lines/finale of our unfinished symphony.

(‘Unfinished Symphony’ by Richard Schweitzer from musicxray[dot]com)

(example of “never-to-be-composed” used in a sentence with “what might have happened”; from ‘Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage’ by Herbert Lindenberger, via Google Books)

(example of “unfinished symphony used in a sentence with “what might have been”; from Suzanne Strutman’s Introduction to Thomas Wolfe’s unfinished novel, ‘The Good Child's River’; via Google Books)

With the added tag "poetry" in mind:

Along the general musical lines of the above variations on the theme of “unfinished symphony” (but admittedly, more comparable to @CandiedOrange’s "The road not taken"), you could consider the idea of “the/our unsung song” or preferably, as inverted and used in the title of a book by Monique Ritter: “The Song Unsung.”

The provided link is to the website of the novel’s publisher, The Strategic Publishing Group, where a synopsis uses the notion of “what might have happened on another path” (in direct reference to the title of Mr. Frost’s poem) in its first paragraph, as well as both CandiedOrange’s “Regrets” and "The road not taken" together in paragraph 3.
(I fear that this edit is reading more and more like a reason for giving favorable consideration to CandiedOrange’s good answer than for doing so to my answer!)

Anyway, in response to your addition of the tag “poetry” (not “famous poetry,” mind you), in addition to the book mentioned above, I’ve also found a nice poem with the same title:

The Song Unsung” by Abdul Wahab

So many people have sung so many songs
On and from earth to heaven
but they have not sung me
I am the song

Though I have the best beat
I move with a great rhythm
Yet I have not been put on music

The reason I know not
Nor I want to know
As it could be anything
But I am sure that it is not their ability
Neither the quality which I carry

If any one sings me
Instantly he or she will be
On the cloud nine
As I am the song
None has ever touched me
Purely unsung

Oh singers of the world
If you sing me
I shall make your fame spread so wide
That your name can not hold
As I am the song unique

And totally unsung.

Abdul Wahab

(from PoemHunter[dot]com)

Although this poem, as most poems, is subject to different interpretations, as I interpret it, the poet is saying that the song that we leave unsung in our lives would be/have been far better than the one we chose to sing ... the one we are now singing (at least in our own minds, in retrospect from our own present lives).

If my pessimistic interpretation is correct (and I hope it's not, even if that would lessen the poem's relevance to your question), the poet’s message is sad and very sobering.

  • 2
    Nice, first one to take on the romantic relationship angle Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 17:12
  • 2
    I like "unfinished symphony". I don't know why.
    – user140086
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 17:20

I would suggest Hauntology, specifically as defined by cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who "used the term to describe [contemporary] art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures"."

Quote is from wiki, Concept is from Fisher's book Ghosts of my Life.


"Shattered Dreams". Possibly a darker meaning than what you're looking for, but Johnny Hates Jazz made a cool song about it.


I will go with another take, commonly referred in sci-fy but common enough for other conversations:

In another universe

It comes from Alternate Universes and the fact that similar, but slightly different things are happening continuously in alternate/parallel universes. So in another universe it is a different situation, and you lament that you are not in that universe. Example for the question:

In another universe we'd have a beautiful daughter


Anemoia - Nostalgia For A Time You've Never Known.

Although typically used to refer to the distant past (e.g. before you are born) it can also be used about the future. Although not directly following from the definition I would say that it can also be used for a counter factual present.

Note: Anemoia was coined recently by John Koenig, and is not mainstream (yet, so go use it! I think it is beautiful/fitting enough that it 'deserves' to be more than a nonce word.)

  • 2
    For a moment I was thrilled at the idea of there being a "word" that came close to what I was seeking. Very close, and I would have accepted it too if I hadn't checked online (you didn't provide a link). Instead, anemoia is a nonce word, created by John Koenig, for words that describe emotions and experiences that have no established terms.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 8:47
  • 1
    If you had included this important detail, I might have accepted the answer all the same, as it is, I will upvote it because anemoia has a nostalgic feel to it. Who knows, it might catch on with anglophone speakers, there are numerous references to it online.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 8:49
  • Yes, sorry that was not entirely forthcoming. The post is now edited with a link to the original source. Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 20:42
  • PS I have started using it, and after explaining what it means I get a very positive response. I think it is a concept that deserves a word, and this is a good one IMO. Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 20:55

How about illusions? Illusions of being happy forever.

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