I graduated college a semester before him, and we hung out nearly every day during my last semester. It was much more of a situationship than a relationship (10/10 don’t recommend), but I wanted it to be more so badly that I ignored all of his red flags, despite all of my friends telling me he was bad news. We kept in contact for the first few weeks of his last semester, but it fizzled out quickly.
Refusing to accept that the situationship had run its course, I clung to the good times when he had made me laugh until my stomach hurt and had made late-night study sessions in the library anything but boring. I downloaded Hinge and Bumble to start dating again, but I couldn’t help comparing every guy I matched with to him.
This story is embarrassing to admit, but I’m not alone in experiencing this. We tend to romanticize past relationships (or, in my case, a situationship) by focusing on the good times and ignoring why they ended in the first place. We get hung up on nostalgia – and not in a good way.
They’re Our Ex for a Reason
Out of every line from “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, I think the most relatable line is “I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.” I like this line because it perfectly demonstrates the ultimate problem with romanticizing past relationships – we only remember the good times.
We remember all of the times he made our hearts skip a beat in a single look and all of the sweet things he used to do when we weren’t at our best. We don’t remember all of the lies he told and the tears we shed because of the lies, longing for the days when we thought he was our Prince Charming and hoping things would change. We forget the toxic aspects of the relationship, like when he was controlling, possessive, or jealous.
“I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.” – Taylor Swift
Why do we do this to ourselves? I can think of two good reasons. The first is that being alone can suck, and sometimes we just want to feel loved. The other is because we find comfort in nostalgia. We view our past through the distorted lens of everything was better back then, and we feel like if we could just get back to that place or be with that person again, then life would be much, much better right now. It's like rewatching our favorite shows is so comforting, because we know what’s going to happen next and that certainty is soothing.
Psychologist Pamela Rutledge writes, "It can become really therapeutic, especially if you are feeling anxious. Watching the same piece multiple times reaffirms that there's order in the world and that it can create a sense of safety and comfort on a primal level." In short, we revisit things we’re familiar with because they’re familiar and predictable, and that familiarity tells our brains it’s okay (hence why I tend to watch The Office for the hundredth time when I’m stressed out). We get a mental break from the chaos and the uncertainties of life.
Though it’s natural to seek out something familiar and comfortable during stressful times (breakups included), the difference is rewatching our favorite shows doesn’t hurt us, but romanticizing our exes chains us to an unprofitable past.
You Can’t Move Forward When You’re Stuck in the Past
If you’re trying to date while hung up on someone else, you’re inevitably going to compare everyone you meet to your ex, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Dr. Brene Brown, a professor of social work at the University of Houston, writes, “Nostalgia is a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.”
Think about it. Are the nostalgic memories you have of your ex entirely accurate? Probably not, because you’re forgetting (or ignoring) the negative qualities or experiences that motivated you to break up in the first place.
When I was on dating apps while trying to get over my college fling, I couldn’t help but compare every guy to him. I’d swipe right on a guy who kind of looked like him and would always swipe left on anyone less attractive than him (I was very shallow in my early twenties). When I’d match with a guy and start talking, I compared everything the guy would say to what my college fling would have said. It made it impossible to make a connection with someone new because nobody was what I was looking for – which was him, but also not really him, because I was looking for an idealized version of him that didn’t exist. I was looking for someone who was perfect, but there’s no such thing as Mr. Perfect.
Nostalgia made it impossible to make a new love connection because nobody was enough like him.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I had to go through this to realize that romanticizing someone from my past wasn’t healthy. I probably missed out on some good guys because I was so hung up on someone who wasn’t even interested in me. However, I’m glad I went through it in my early twenties and learned this lesson while I was still young.
It’s okay to have fond memories of an ex, but it’s important not to romanticize them. You can remember the good times while acknowledging the bad and staying clear-minded on the fact that you broke up for a good reason.
We all know that nostalgia can be powerful, and that can be a good thing. Who doesn’t love a Disney movie night or talking about fond memories with friends? But unchecked nostalgia can hurt us when we romanticize an ex, making it nearly impossible to move on and find someone new.
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