Why Romanticizing Past Relationships Will Ruin Future Ones

It seems we can’t get away from “the one that got away.”

Sprayed across books, movies and television shows, our fixation on this tragic trope is undeniable.

Take “La La Land,” for example. In the last scene of the movie, we’re totally immersed in a sparkling parallel-universe fantasy of “what could have been” between two star-crossed lovers.

It’s an indulgent daydream that feels all too familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten stuck in the vortex of nostalgia.

Living in fantasyland

Whether you’re fantasy-prone or a pragmatic realist, the temptation to romanticize the past (including your former flame) can be emotionally gratifying.

Illustration of two male friends hugging. Romanticizing Past Relationships pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Find people to confide in who are willing to extend empathy, not just a silver lining.

According to Alan R. Hirsch’s report about nostalgia and the brain, nostalgia is “not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together… all negative emotions filtered out.”

Romanticizing a past relationship (remembering only the happy stuff from “the good old days”) feels safe. And it’s easy to go there if our present reality feels difficult or we’re struggling in our current relationship, said Jenni Skyler, director of The Intimacy Institute for sex and relationship therapy in Boulder, Colorado.

Romanticizing the past can help you dodge responsibility for difficult things happening in the present, she said.

“It’s easier to escape the issues of your current relationship or situation if you can blame the problems on them and say, ‘This wasn’t how it was for me before.’”

[ICYMI: Do You Keep Crushes On the Back Burner?]

Why you can’t trust your perception of the past

But this romanticization isn’t based in reality, right? Can’t we just tell ourselves to face the truth and be done with the whole thing?

According to Kristin Wesner, an adjunct professor of psychology at Clarke University, the truth always takes a back seat to our own biases, however inaccurate they may be.

“When you’re looking at your satisfaction with a current relationship, perception ends up being more important than the actual reality,” she said. “You might be more likely to remember the good stuff, when in fact focusing more on the negative might be more healthy in terms of your self-esteem.”

Because our memories of this past relationship are filtered, it’s easy to forget all the reasons that old love wasn’t right for us. The problems, the fights and the pet peeves are smoothed over and we’re left trying to answer the question: “Why did I leave that relationship?” with an unrealistic set of data.

The real kicker? According to Skyler, most couples she sees in this situation are comparing their long-term relationship with one that never launched past the honeymoon stage of six to 18 months.

It hurts your relationship potential

And though it’s natural (and even healthy) to compare your relationships to each other, it’s considerably unhelpful to stay stuck in the past.

Wesner found in a recent study that people who compared their own relationships with ones they saw as better on Facebook thought their own relationships were worse.

“When people get stuck in romanticizing a past relationship, they’re usually not really optimizing their current relationship,” Skyler said. “Or, if they’re not in one, they’re not really trying to look for something healthy and functional.”

Carrie Cole, a licensed professional counselor and the director of research at The Gottman Institute, said that when you idealize someone from the past, it’s easy to be critical of any new person that comes into the picture.

“It may not show up immediately, but over time it does… and eventually people get tired of being criticized or never measuring up,” Cole said. “It may cause another relationship to end.”

How can I stop doing this?

Nostalgia and fantasy can have some strong jaws, especially if they’re being used by your brain to protect you from painful memories or help you relax and tune out stress.

And, though your friends may try and solve the issue by trash-talking your ex and advising you to “just get over it,” these tactics may just bury the problem.

As Cole said: “It’s important that people understand that they’re holding onto something for a reason… When something has not been fully processed, we often have a hard time letting it go.”

According to these experts, here are a few ways to ground yourself back into the present:

1. Be curious with yourself

If you catch yourself idealizing a past relationship, try and zoom out a little. Asking yourself a few simple questions may help ground you back in the present.

  • What am I soothing by doing this?
  • Am I trying to avoid a painful experience?
  • How is this helping me? What purpose is this fantasy serving in my life?
  • Can I see any ways in which this holds me back?
  • What do I hope to gain by holding onto this person?
  • What would it be like to let them go?
2. Be kind to yourself

Remove shame from the process.

“Be really gentle and non-judgemental of yourself,” Skyler said. “If you can catch yourself while you’re doing this, stop and say: ‘Oh, look at me fantasizing. I wonder what I’m trying to avoid right now.’”

3. Confide in the right people

Find people who are willing to extend empathy, not just a silver lining.

“It is never going to serve anybody well to say, ‘Just let it go,’” Cole said. “They would have if they could. It’s a signal that something needs to happen. And that’s what a lot of well-intended people would say to do. But that just shames them… and that just compounds the problem.”

Kelsey Yandura

Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver). Though her first love is fiction (namely sci-fi and anything influenced by folklore), she’s also a big fan of writing about social groups, technology and relationships. Follow her on social media (@kelseyyan) for vaguely humorous tidbits, as well as updates on her creative writing projects.