I’m happily married, but I never stopped missing my ex-partner. The regrets I have affects me every day. My new life is wonderful, but I just can’t be happy. How can I move forward? Anonymous, 38, London.
“Every past time has been better,” wrote the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique in the 15th century to perfectly capture what a strong emotional nostalgia is. This simple line shows that longing for the past is a universal feeling that people all over the world experience throughout history. We fondly remember the past because it is unchangeable and, in contrast to the present and future, is not threatening either. It can also be a refuge, especially when deprived of its uglier and more uncomfortable truths by us.
Research on nostalgia has shown that this emotion is very useful: it reduces loneliness (by increasing our sense of social belonging), increases positive self-esteem and creates a good mood. It can also increase the sense of meaning in life (no small matter) by promoting feelings of social connectedness.
Nostalgia is likely at the heart of your dilemma. Because past loved ones can be all too easily remembered without complaining about their doubts and details. So keep in mind that these old relationships broke down for a reason. It is important to keep this in mind to avoid idealizing a connection that in the past has not been marred by the everyday pressures and small disappointments of everyday life.
This article is part of The big questions in life
The new series of the conversation, co-published with BBC Future, seeks to answer the nagging questions our readers have about life, love, death and the universe. We work with professional researchers who have spent their lives discovering new perspectives on the issues that shape our lives.
We are often nostalgic about matters of the heart and particularly fond of our first romance. But while the first cut may be “the deepest,” as the Cat Stevens song says, it’s only because they’re romances for early teens marinated in hormones and effects on a very impressive young brain. Consequently, like so many other “firsts” in life, a first love leaves indelible marks.
But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to stay in the past. As the American psychologist Nancy Kalish has argued::
Strong emotional memories are not prints. They don’t prevent later bonds from occurring that are just as strong or stronger. They do not determine our behavior. As humans, we have the choice of following the person we have found or letting them go.
Memories are rarely a precise guide to the past – It makes sense to be skeptical of them. We are constantly choosing what to remember. If you want to see your past love as perfect, remember the instances when your ex was wonderful rather than the times when they were actually annoying, difficult, and downright mean.
Research also suggests that our memories become distorted over time. The more we think about it and talk about it, the more we focus on certain details that we are currently interested in while forgetting about others. Memory is therefore partly influenced by our own motivations. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we sometimes even make up completely false memories of things that never happened – no matter how good our memories are.
In this 1942 film, Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), ignites the romance they had in Paris before World War II. Ultimately, however, Rick’s surprisingly high moral standards force him to sacrifice their love to help Ilsa and her resistance hero husband escape Vichy-controlled Casablanca. Giving a love interest to a rival as part of the war effort doesn’t sound very romantic, but millions of viewers thought it did.
The component in the Casablanca story relevant to this question is the fact that Ilsa left Rick in Paris when she learned that her husband had not been killed by the Nazis as she mistakenly thought. Ilsa and Rick had been forced apart by difficult living conditions, as often happens in times of war.
That said, you might want to wonder how lucky you really are. If a relationship is struggling due to frequent fights, character incompatibility, or increasing boredom, one has to suspect that one more attempt to save them would likely produce the same result. Actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could be a good example of this second category, although it is obvious that they made love very passionately. Taylor even said that “according to Richard the men in my life were only there to hold my coat, to open the door”. Their passion supported the public’s interest, but it was not enough to keep their hearts alive.
Sometimes it is necessary to break up, but we just cannot bring ourselves to it because we are scared regret. Ending a relationship forces us to admit failure, feel regret, and eventually move on instead of forever in an unhappy status quo.
However, is it ever a good idea to end a relationship because of an ex? Kalish started the Lost Love Project in 1993 from her base at California State University. The aim was to conduct a survey of men and women who had tried to reunite with their old flames.
In the first phase of the project, she found that two-thirds of the 1,001 young participants had reunited with their high school loved ones, and their success rate in reviving their love and cementing them into a stable relationship was 78% – a striking number.
Many of them had to separate at a young age due to parental disapproval or other practical issues. Because of this, Kalish cautioned parents against rejecting the passions of their teenage children as “Puppy love only”. However, the second phase of the study found that married participants who tried to do the same encountered all sorts of foreseeable difficulties, such as cheating. Only 5% of these lost lovers married each other and often stayed in their original marriage.
The prospect of relighting an old flame can be tempting, but it’s not always the best idea. In our internet era, it’s much easier to get in touch with old lovers than it used to be. There are actually websites dedicated specifically to this purpose. But when one party is in a stable relationship with someone else, approaching an ex with the idea of investigating a possible revival of past passions is a risky exercise.
Remember that a new partner can never be superior in any way to the old one you may have idealized. The glamorous past beats the worldly present and your aging new partner, who sleeps on the sofa and maybe drips a little, can’t rival the young, tanned and smiling memory of an old flame playing on a happy Mediterranean vacation. And don’t forget that both you and your ex have likely changed since dating, which means you may not be as compatible at all as you used to be. In any case, happiness isn’t in the past, not least because people aren’t really designed to be happy, anything I explore in my latest book “You shouldn’t be happy. So stop trying ”. As a proxy for happiness, the futile efforts of nostalgia to revive the past will be worse than a sense of hope for the future.
You want to move on, which is the right mindset after a breakup. There is evidence that any type of continued collaboration with an ex-partner after a relationship has ended, possibly through social media, is an obstacle in the healing process. Striving for a clean cut, if you haven’t already, is the first step.
Difficulty in letting go of the memory of a lover can be due to one insecure attachment for adults during our childhood, which in some cases can even lead to internet surveillance of the lost lover. To avoid getting stuck in this kind of purgatoryone should practice a certain level of self-discipline and willpower once a decision has been made to move on. Therapy can help when willpower is insufficient.
You can also take inspiration from Bogart’s role in Casablanca and how he let his lover go when he felt there was no satisfactory alternative path and how he renamed their love affair as something they will both remember as well as: “We will always have Paris.”