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I Keep Idealizing My Past Relationships. How Do I Stop?

Q: I only remember the good parts of old relationships, and it’s messing with me. I’m a nostalgic person, and after the breakup I play up the positive parts of our relationship and tend to forget about the bad parts — aka, the reasons we broke up at all. I know it’s not the right move to get back together, but I can’t seem to shake the fond memories, instead of focusing on the reasons these relationships weren’t meant to be. I think this tendency is holding me back from truly connecting with new people. How do I move past this so I can finally find closure and move on?

A: I’ve known many people in both my personal and professional life who have experienced this same problem so you are not alone in your nostalgia. I’ve talked several friends out of getting back together with an ex and, in all honesty, have had friends do the same for me. Our minds can definitely play tricks on us!

Remembering the positive parts of a relationship is our brain’s way of validating the decisions we have made in the past (like getting together with that person in the first place and staying with them for X amount of time). Nostalgia is also nature’s way of ensuring that we get into another relationship. If all you remembered were the bad parts of a relationship, you may not want to get back into a relationship at all.

We’re social creatures by nature, so when we’re not in a relationship, we can get lonely and think back to the last relationship we were in. It’s also normal to be drawn to the familiar. Even if we know a situation is not good for us, it feels easier to do what we know then to venture into the unknown. So getting back together with someone we know can feel less scary than looking for a new relationship.

Before we talk about moving past nostalgia, let’s discuss how it can be helpful. Nostalgia can help us identify the aspects of a relationship that are important to us. These can then become the things to look for in future partners.

What were the positive parts of your past relationships and why were they important to you? I encourage you to write down the things you are looking for in a future partner based on what you know you like (and therefore miss) from previous partners.

It can also be just as helpful to make a list of the things you are not willing to put up with in a relationship. Dan Wile, the developer of Collaborative Couple Therapy, says that “choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.” It’s important to know what problems you are willing to live with and what problems are deal breakers. Your past relationships can help you identify at least some of the deal breakers.

The dark side of nostalgia can, as you know, lead us to make bad decisions (such as getting back together with someone we know isn’t right for us). So let’s talk about some ways to keep nostalgia in check. First, it is important to identify triggers that are increasing nostalgia and work toward minimizing these triggers as much as possible. For example, social media can be a common trigger, so it may be a good idea to unfollow or block your ex and steer clear of searching for them. People put their best face forward on social media and it can lead you to think that maybe this person has changed and things will be different this time. Don’t let social media deceive you.

Even after you have minimized triggers, there will still be times you feel nostalgic. During these times, accept that nostalgia is part of life and is going to happen. When it arises, remind yourself that it’s normal and allow it for a period of time (15 minutes or so). When the time is up, remember the pain of the relationship and remind yourself that the positives do not outweigh the negatives. Then you need to do something to take your mind off of it.

Focusing on other relationships (friendships, family members, colleagues, etc.) is crucial during this time. You can call a friend or plan an outing with someone. You can join a support or meetup group to meet new people. These investments in other relationships help us meet the need for connection when we feel lonely and are a great distraction.

It’s also important to focus on personal goals during this time. You can work on a project, renew an old hobby, or start a new one. Additionally, you can move past the nostalgia by taking some time to yourself (going on a walk, getting out of the house, taking a bath, or journaling). Try to stay in the present moment and focus on the things in your life you are grateful for.

Remember that nostalgia about past relationships does lessen with time. Use it to your benefit and then keep it in check. Call a friend if you fear you may act on your nostalgia. We’ve all been there and friends are great for reminding us of all the negatives.

(Thrive Global)

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