Why We Think About Our Exes (and Why It's Not a Bad Thing)

For one thing, it's not necessarily a sign that you want them back.

Posted Jul 14, 2015

ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
Source: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

Do you ever dream about past lovers? Do memories of your previous relationships crowd out your enjoyment of those in your life now? Do you have dreams about an ex that haunt you when you’re awake? If so, you’re not unusual.

Despite the fact that a past relationship may have ended for very good reasons, memory tends to soften the harsh edges of those difficulties. Your ex starts to seem pretty desirable—and you can’t help but focus on your current partner’s flaws. There are several good reasons for becoming stuck on your ex.

One, that person isn’t around anymore. Those small things that bother you about your current partner, like the tendency to leave dirty glasses around the house, are apparent to you on a daily basis. You don’t remember that your ex engaged in the same behavior, or (probably) worse. Without the memory of your former partner's negative behaviors in your current consciousness, they dwindle.

Another reason to romanticize your ex relates to how many reminders you have of that former relationship. Perhaps it’s the couch you still own or the crystal vase you and your partner received from a close relative. Little pieces of your ex are still physically with you, and with those pieces go associated memories. You may have spent hours on that couch involved in arguments with your ex, but perhaps an equivalent amount of time sharing a pleasant conversation or a romantic movie. Perhaps you received that vase as a wedding gift, during a period in your life when you were happy and optimistic about the future.

Dreams about your ex may also preoccupy you. Those physical objects that you encounter in your daily life, like the couch or the vase, can trigger neurons to fire even though those brain waves don't ever reach your conscious mind. While sleeping, you start to weave together a dream that brings back elements of your past. Little fragments of memories can become the basis for “experiences” we remember in the morning as vividly as if they had actually occurred. Along with your tendency to sugarcoat your memories of the past, you created a situation that places your ex front and center in your waking consciousness.

Feelings of nostalgia are pretty common, evidenced by the prices of remnants from our youth on online bidding sites. Toys, books, and stuffed animals from decades past, for example, give us connections to our past selves and experiences and offer comfort. No wonder people from your past also provoke a strong sense of nostalgia.

According to Texas Christian University psychologist Cathy Cox and colleagues (2015), people can benefit from the state they refer to as “nostalgic reverie.” The research they review suggests that nostalgic reverie is amazingly common. People reminisce about the past at some point in the day several times a week on average. Almost no one reminisces on just a once-a-month basis. It’s possible that we think about the past because it’s good for our well-being. As indicated by Cox et al., nostalgic reverie can boost our mood, feelings of self-esteem, and identity.

Cox and her fellow researchers sought to find out if they could promote nostalgic reverie by exposing participants to blogging websites that promote feelings of connection to past lovers, including one appropriately named “Dear Old Love.” They also wanted to know whether spending time on such sites could promote mental health, especially if nostalgic reverie boosts feelings of well-being.

On the one hand, dabbling in your past by visiting these sites could distance you from the people in your present-day life while putting you closer to those in a virtual world. However, as argued by the Cox group, Internet use such as this can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of connection to others, and make you feel better about yourself.

In a three-part study, carried out with a primarily female undergraduate sample, the Cox et al. team showed that exposure to nostalgia-inducing websites stimulated feelings of nostalgia, which in turn helped to produce greater positive affect, life satisfaction, and satisfaction with the individual’s current relationship.

The benefits of nostalgic website exposure were not due to the general effect of social-media websites on feelings of connectedness (which are usually positive). Cox and her coauthors concluded that “certain blogging websites have the potential to increase nostalgia, and this increase in sentimentality for the past contributes to emotional, psychological, and social health” (p. 290).

These findings suggest that, as you try to understand your own experiences of thinking about your ex, maybe you shouldn’t fight them off so hard. The Cox researchers note that thoughts about the past, when life was supposedly simpler and happier, can offset your current stresses with work, child care, and paying the bills. I would add that this is particularly true because of our tendency to gloss past experiences.

Further, when people think about the past, they often do so in a way that frames them in a positive light and as active agents in shaping that past. It may not be the ex specifically that you long for, but the way you were with that person, and how that relationship made you feel about yourself. Since memory has a way of shaving off the rough edges of past experiences, especially as time goes on, you forget the fights (and perhaps your role in provoking them) but recall how the relationship made you feel like a valued and loved human being.

Given that people tend to reminisce anyway, there seems to be no reason to drive that nostalgic reverie out of your brain. There may be unexpected ways in which your past life can enhance your present, as long as you do so in measured amounts. Recalling what worked for you in the past may increase your fulfillment and the quality of your current relationships.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

References

Cox, C. R., Kersten, M., Routledge, C., Brown, E. M., & Van Enkevort, E. A. (2015). When past meets present: The relationship between website‐induced nostalgia and well‐being. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 45(5), 282-299. doi:10.1111/jasp.1229