As past relationships recede into the rear view, we sometimes find ourselves thinking about our exes, often remembering a ‘perfect’ relationship. A clinical psychologist explains why we romanticise the past when it comes to love, and how to stop it.
When Netflix released its series Sex/Life in 2021, conversations about the effects of romanticising – and acting on – the memories of an ex-partner flooded conversations on and off-line.
For months, the story of a woman who grappled between the reality of her lacklustre but secure marriage and the romanticised version of a past fling who re-enters her life, remained in the top 10 most-watched shows in Australia. But why?
What is it about some past romantic relationships that cause us to idealise the situation, often unrealistically? And how do we break the habit?
Why do we romanticise the past?
Humans are nostalgic creatures. When we’re nostalgic, our memory takes a wander through the past with a frosted lens. We revisit experiences and moments, highlighting the more enjoyable aspects and blocking out those that are less so. Our memories are malleable, and we can manipulate personal memories to create a favourable version of events.
Romantic connections we’ve made in the past nearly always leave a mark, no matter the time frame spent with them. We catch ourselves looking back on these former partners as though they – and everything about the relationship – were perfect.
While this romanticising is a common act of human nature, it does come with some pitfalls. By idealising past relationships, we make them seem better than they really were, fixating on the things you once loved about them and forgetting about the reasons the relationship didn’t work out.
There are many reasons why we reminisce about a past relationship. It may be loneliness, it may have been a messy break up with unanswered questions, or – if you’re in a new relationship – there may be an element of being underwhelmed, and fantasising about an ex as an outlet.
Past experiences may seem more thrilling or fulfilling when our memory is in charge, so it’s important to give yourself a reality check and remember the reasons for the breakup. Looking back can be more common if you didn’t end the relationship and are still grieving.
The addictive side of romanticising an ex
Being in love can bring about a rollercoaster of powerful emotions – the rush of excitement, joy, and other positive feelings, all stemming from spikes in feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and oxytocin.
It is widely reported that the euphoric ‘high’ that accompanies passion-filled, early days of romantic love affects the brain in the same way that particular drugs and pain killers do, inciting an emotional and physical dependence.
When a relationship is over, it can feel a little like a drug withdrawal, with some people wanting to continue chasing that feeling.
Revisiting memories of an ex gives those little flashes of euphoria that spike the neurotransmitters, giving us a ‘hit’ in low dosage. When you think of it that way, it’s understandable why we want to think of our exes and romanticise them — the memories create the fix we crave.
Romanticising makes it harder to move on
While thinking fondly of past relationships isn’t in itself a bad thing, romanticising to the point of questioning current choices or being preoccupied with reconnecting can be problematic, especially if you’re in a new relationship or you’re struggling to move on.
When we romanticise, our judgement is clouded; we forget about the reasons why the relationship didn’t work or start to see the problems as surmountable after all, and we begin to miss them – or possibly even consider getting back together with them.
The passage of time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, so it’s important to understand why you do it, what the triggers are, focus on distancing yourself from those triggers and turn instead to the meaningful connections that exist in your life now.
Breaking the habit
Of course, everyone takes a walk down memory lane once in a while, but if your romantic memories are getting in the way of your current relationships, you might need to investigate ways of keeping your mind in the present – and resist looking in the relationship rear-view mirror.
Here’s our advice:
Block them on social media
Breaking the romanticising habit can be a tough one, and it’ll take some work in changing patterns. Blocking them on social media is by far one of the most important steps to take, especially if you’re still in contact or move in similar social circles. Keeping them out of sight can keep them out of mind.
Mine some collective memories
Ask friends and family who were with you on that relationship journey what they recall about the relationship, and how you were when you were in it. What they reveal may help to take off that rose-coloured tint.
Separate you and your ex in your head
Sometimes it’s less about re-capturing the ex and more about recapturing who we were when we were back in that time and place. The right people in your life can bring out the best in you; this is also something you can drive in the future by putting yourself in the path of the right (new) people and experiences.
Relationships are not just about an individual, they are also about time, place and circumstances. The specialness you remember is the sum total of many factors. Ultimately, looking back on past relationships won’t do you much good, and will be likely when your present isn’t living up to expectations. Use good experiences to inform you about what you need in the future, rather than what you need to reclaim in the past.
Talking through issues with a counsellor is extremely valuable, especially in understanding why the romantic attachment to this person exists. This is especially helpful if idealising the past is affecting your current relationships.