Relationships

7 Reasons Why 'The One That Got Away' Is A Tragic Myth

By Rebecca Hope
·  10 min read
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As narrative creatures, we’re enchanted by the idea that there is one person out there who is destined for us. This romanticism of love is both fascinating and tragic. Although there is a sweetness to the idea of star-crossed lovers, this belief often feeds the myth of “the one that got away,” and leads many to hang on to an ex. Sometimes, for years.

This fantasy is a fairy tale’s curse. It causes individuals to stay stuck on a person who has left their lives but not their hearts and steals their happy ending. Instead of acknowledging that it simply wasn’t the right person for them, they believe that if just one thing were different, they would have ended up together. These long-gone souls from our past are the most wonderful and witty people we have ever met. They are the only ones we could truly be ourselves with and a person no one else seems to measure up to.

But it’s no wonder no one can. Fed by the lies of the classic romantics, we place these people on a pedestal. Those who are captured by the idea of soulmates assign more value to the relationship than it deserves. Plus, to make things worse, the way our brains are wired to process memories doesn’t help us move on either. That rosy retrospection is a real nightmare.

1. Rosy Retrospection: The Memory Is Better Than the Real Thing

Clinical psychologist Jodi J. De Luca likens reminiscing about a past relationship to a sort of emotional time travel. According to 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.”

It’s a product of rosy retrospection – a cognitive bias that causes people to view the past as more positive than it actually was. Even the Ancient Romans had a phrase for this phenomenon. They would call it memoria praeteritorum bonorum, roughly translating to “the past is always well remembered.”

Rosy retrospection causes us to remember the past more favorably than the present. The danger in rosy retrospection is that it can create a distorted view of the present and expectation of the future. Sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly says, “Though this cognitive bias can be positive if it 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.”

When looking back at past relationships, happy memories stick out more than unhappy or painful ones.

The reason we remember the good times in relationships is perhaps similar to why adults tend to remember their younger years as “the good old days” and see the past as better than the present day. Research suggests that negative autobiographical memories are more complex and decay over time in comparison to positive ones. This means that when we look back at our lives, positive events are disproportionately more accessible than negative ones. The same can perhaps be found when looking back at memories within relationships – happy memories stick out more than unhappy or painful ones.

2. Whatever Pushed Him Away Wouldn’t Have Kept Him Away

When it comes to the one that got away, there tends to be a sliding doors moment that people hold onto – a moment where they believe that if they’d made a different decision, they would still be with their lost love. Maybe all they needed to do was speak up but decided to keep how they felt to themselves. Or maybe they took their dream job abroad and their partner didn’t want to do the long-distance thing. Whatever the reason, if it was truly “meant to be,” it would simply be and life wouldn’t have worked out in a way that kept two people “destined” for each other apart.

Moreso, if you’re someone who’s ambitious and career-driven, imagine what life would be like if you had stayed instead of taking that dream job. But really, think about it. Initially, you may think it would be better because you’d be together, but then you’re faced with the fact you never lived out your life ambition. In turn, it may have resulted in resentment toward your partner, causing many more issues in the future. And just imagine being 80 years old, looking back at your life and seeing that you never did x, y and z. That’s another kind of heartbreak. Plus, if the tables were turned, do you think they’d give up their dreams for you? Would you want them to?

At the end of it all, as we’re often told by those older than us, you’re going to regret the things you didn’t do far more than the things you did do. Your 80-year-old self will be prouder of you for taking the risk and going it alone, rather than staying in a relationship that’s comfortable but limiting.

3. His Absence Makes Room for Someone Better

The end of a relationship doesn’t have to be complete devastation. In fact, it can be a blessing. If you allow yourself time to heal, the ending of one relationship always leads to something better. But you have to let go of the past to allow this future new relationship to truly flourish. Plus, as the saying goes, if this is how much you loved the wrong person, imagine how much better it’ll be to love the right person. 

Rather than dwelling on the guy who left, think about all the new adventures you’ll have with the mysterious future man. Stop dwelling on the guy from your past. The one that got away is not that great, especially in comparison to the man who stays – that’s so much more romantic.

The one that got away is not that great, especially compared to the man who stays – that’s so much more romantic.

So spend time thinking about the kind of guy who would actually be good for you and get excited about it. This mind-shift is necessary to let go of the past and get excited about a future relationship. 

4. Did He “Get Away,” or Did It Just Not Work Out?

When you find yourself ruminating over a past relationship, returning back to the same moments over and over again, it’s easy to feel as if this particular relationship was special. And if you’re a romantic, you may even believe it to be a tear in fate’s fabric. In reality, it’s no different to the end of any other relationship. What’s really different is the pedestal you’ve put your ex on and the power you’ve given them over you. 

And it’s no wonder you feel this way. One of the most fascinating and dreadful things about heartbreak is that it can quite literally feel like a part of you is missing, so why wouldn’t you feel like there was something different about this one? But breakups happen all the time. In the end, there wasn’t anything special about it, it just didn’t work out. 

5. The Idea You Have of What Might Have Been Is a Fantasy

The hard truth is that getting back together wouldn’t be as good as you imagine. Now that they’re no longer around, all you have is fantasy. That’s why it’s easy to build him up in your head as someone you’d have a rosy future with. But that’s not real – it’s self-written fan fiction. 

There’s no way to know if you would’ve done things differently had you stayed together. In reality, it’s likely he’d do things that drive you up the wall. If you got back together, you’d realize he’s just as flawed as anyone else. All those problems you forgot about would start popping up again, and before you know it, you’d see that the man you thought he was is actually not that great. As philosopher Alain de Botton says, “Everyone from close-up is trouble.”

6. Movies and Literature Wrongly Romanticize the One That Got Away

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, protagonist Anne Elliot is persuaded by others to break off her engagement to her beloved Wentworth, believing that, essentially, she could do better. Anne doesn’t find another suitor. Instead, for nearly eight long years, she pines, whines, and wishes for her time with Wentworth again, forever regretting the moment she broke off her engagement to him.

We don’t have a puppeteer coordinating a perfect love story. It’s up to us to craft our own.

Luckily for Anne, she had a master romantic crafting her love story, ensuring a happy ending. Spoiler: Anne and Wentworth end up together and live happily ever after. But unlike Anne, we don’t have a puppeteer coordinating a perfect love story. It’s up to us to craft our own, and pining for an ex, or even giving them the title of “the one that got away,” isn’t the way to spend it. All this does is waste precious time. To spend all this energy on someone who chose to stay away means you may miss out on true romance. 

7. Destiny Isn’t True Romance

It’s peculiar that the idea of a destined soulmate is romantic. What’s romantic about a guy who is forced to be with you because fate has forced his hand? Is real romance written in the stars, or is it simply the man who chooses you, always, in a society where we’re overwhelmed with choice? 

Would you not rather be with a man who could be with someone else but chooses you instead, rather than fate intervening? Moreso, which part of the “one that got away” returning is something to strive for? There’s so much pain, loneliness, and pining involved in that scenario that it can’t possibly be described as romantic.

Of course, there are many true life tales of married couples who had an on-again, off-again relationship, and now they’re happier than ever. Although they are beautiful stories, they aren’t the tales to strive for. They’re often filled with confusion, agony, and heartbreak before they get to the happy ending. 

Surely it’s more romantic when two people continually choose each other and overcome certain obstacles to stay together. There are no broken hearts, or waiting for the other to realize you’re the one after years apart. Instead, you grow together, and 30, 40, 50 years later you’re still together. Uncommon in today’s society but not impossible.

Closing Thoughts

In Taylor Swift’s song “Right Where You Left Me,” she tells the story of a girl stuck in a moment. She’s still “23 inside her fantasy,” forever frozen in the restaurant where he left her. Swift paints a picture of a young woman stuck in a memory, living in a delusion as she waits for him to realize that he got it wrong. She’s been waiting so long that dust collects on her pinned-up hair, and although she knows he’s probably married with kids, she still hopes he’ll change his mind. 

It sounds extreme, but there are people in the real world who do the same. They may not be physically sitting in the same restaurant they were left in all those years ago, but in their minds they are. In these situations, it’s important to remember that maybe the point of the relationship was the breakup. Although breakups can be incredibly tough, they’re also a chance for growth, new experiences, and taking every opportunity thrown at you. 

It’s fine to acknowledge that an ex meant a lot to you and that if circumstances were different, maybe – just maybe – it would’ve worked out. But holding onto an ex, allowing them to affect your present and future, is not romance. It’s a tragedy. 

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