Is the "One That Got Away" Real?
Why we stay fixated on past relationships that don’t deserve it.
Posted February 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Am I opening up the proverbial can of worms by delving into this topic while I am in a happy and healthy relationship?
Alas, this just further demonstrates the magnetic pull and power of the one that got away. Like the concept of soulmates, this cinematic hyperbole does little more than encourage poor, starry-eyed saps to assign more value to a relationship than it deserves. After all, you can only have a single soul mate — and only one that got away, the latter even enjoying special, posthumous privileges, long after the relationship has run its course. Those that get away will always be remembered as somewhat larger than life — great, mythic, enchanting heroes of your past. They are the most beautiful, the wittiest, the best lovers, the ones who understood us the most. The ones who no one else can measure up to . . . even years later. They are a lovely curse, forever trapped by our nostalgia.
Reminiscing about the past may not be good for us, but it’s actually how our brains are wired, says Colorado-based clinical psychologist Jodi J. De Luca:
“Our memories of the past give meaning to our present and our future. If the feelings associated with a particular memory are enjoyable, then our brains are drawn back to visit that memory over and over again. Such is often the case with the one that got away.”
She likens this effect to a sort of emotional time travel, the kind we experience when listening to a favorite song from our past. When we hear that familiar tune, it’s not unusual to suddenly be overcome by “a vivid constellation of emotions and physiological reaction [such as rapid heartbeats, sweaty palms, excitement or tears] all incredibly occurring as if they were happening today,” says De Luca.
Unlike pop songs, however, former relationships have a tendency to be redefined by rosy retrospection. The popular adage of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses is based on this psychological phenomenon. According to Astroglide’s resident sexologist, Dr. Jess O’Reilly, rosy retrospection is a result of remembering and judging the past more favorably than you assess the present. With time, this distorted view “can negatively affect your experience of the present and expectation for the future.”
She further explains:
“Though this cognitive bias can be positive it if helps to build self-esteem when you inaccurately recall your ex’s behavior as overwhelmingly positive, it can result in distorted recollections of the relationship. These biased memories tend to become more positive over time, as you likely don’t recall the end of the relationship and focus on the neutral and positive elements as time passes.”
Our brains respond the same way to brief, whirlwind relationships, like summer flings or vacation romances, where we are more likely “to idealize the unknown,” says O’Reilly:
“When you first meet a new love interest, you tend to subconsciously fill in the gaps with details that reflect your personal desires. You make positive, perfection-based assumptions because you want to like them…”
The problem is that no one is perfect, and “the more you learn about them, the less you’ll idealize them.” With a fling, you don’t have enough time to see that side.
An Attempt to Fix the Past
Clinical psychotherapist Kevon Owen offers another reason as to why we often glorify past relationships. We simply want to right our wrongs.
“Finding things that are lost, getting the win, fixing what was broken. The one who got away can be a very distracting spot in the direction our life is heading because they can be all those things,” he says.
In an ideal world, he explains, we’d learn and grow to move past these perceived errors, “but the chance to do it with the person who got away may be gone, and that can be very difficult to reconcile. The one who got away can symbolize failure in many areas.”
This is when holding on to the past can start to negatively impact our present. Owen says framing someone as the one that got away can lead to self-esteem issues, as well as sabotaging current and future relationships. After all, who can compete with a romanticized ideal?
Letting the One Who Got Away Go
As I’ve been writing this post, I can’t help but admit to having a few fleeting, rose-tinged flashbacks to previous relationships. And yes, one with someone that I thought might have been the one, but instead became the one who got away.
You might think that the best way to get over these people is to avoid thinking about them altogether (or at least, that’s what I assume), but that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, denying the existence of the relationship suggests that you’re not quite over them, says Owen.
Rather, he says, the most important step to take is to realize that the one who got away is gone: “You don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you or wasn’t willing to work to improve your relationship.”
To help you take this step, try implementing these tactics:
- Make a list of reasons why the relationship worked, and one for why it didn’t work. “Putting it on paper helps you think more realistically about the relationship,” according to O’Reilly.
- Stop following their social media. If you can’t quit cold turkey, “wean yourself off a little at a time,” says O’Reilly. One of her clients opted to do 10 pushups every time she wanted to check her ex’s page. Over time, the urge subsides.
- Try to stay in the present. If we let our minds wander too often to past regrets and mistakes, it can lead to depression, anxiety, illness, and other problems, says De Luca. As much as possible, focus on moving forward and establishing realistic goals “to promote a positive outlook for the future.”
Do you have someone who got away? How did you get over them?
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