The Ex Files: When You’re Still Haunted by the One that Got Away

When you’re still haunted by the one that got away

Most people remember their first love with nostalgia and fondness. But if you aren’t in a relationship with that person now, you might be suffering from the nagging wonder about the one that got away.

The issue is that nostalgia tends to sugarcoat the past. It is the equivalent of a plain toast memory that has been bacon-wrapped by emotion. And first loves. Well, they are often a flood of new, exciting feelings that have never been experienced. So when we fall in love for the first time, our future is painted with a whole new set of colors. For the first time ever, we can truly envision a Happily Ever After scenario where we are the center. And like any great show, if the relationship ends, we want an encore.

Do you remember The Blair Witch?

When it first came out, people saw the movie differently than those who saw it knowing it wasn’t true. The movie for those first folks had power. Same with The Sixth Sense. Once the truth was known, you just couldn’t watch the movie the same way.  The naivety of not knowing allowed you to be impacted in a way you could never experience again. Now, you expect movie twists. You remain skeptical when you see “true story.” And because of the novelty of them, we tend to rank those movies higher, even if the story in another movie is better.

And so it is with our lives. We go on with our post-first love days, experiencing life. We fall in love again. But subsequent loves, they often just don’t feel the same. The story is different. The characters are different. WE are different. And yet so many of us trick ourselves into believing that any worthwhile relationship must look like the original. We phish for the same feelings we had the first time, and when they’re not there, we assume something must be wrong. Something must be missing.

An example

Sarah couldn’t understand why she “just couldn’t be happy.” She was married to a great guy that she loved and they were talking about starting a family, but she couldn’t get over feeling like something was missing.

When pressed, she disclosed how still, 14 years later, she pined for her first love. Those two had shared a lot of firsts together. She had fallen for him, his life, and his family, and she still grieved that loss. She just knew that if her and her ex could be together, it would be the dream she wanted. She compared the perceived perfection of that time to her relationship now, and in doing so, unwittingly required every detail of her marriage to be like the memory. Now, in a stroke of what I like to call universe juice, Sarah randomly ran into her ex during the months she shared with me. The encounter was brief but she was ecstatic. She started talking in session about how “this was it.” THIS was meant to be, and shortly after their encounter they made a date for coffee. Sarah was ready to dissolve her marriage, and then she went for that coffee.

After the initial catch up talk, she discovered that her ex was married. And to her alarm, he spent the afternoon boasting of his infidelities. He even boldly propositioned Sarah to be one of them.  She was horrified. Here she thought he would deem her as the perfect mate he lacked. Instead, she realized his dream was remarkably different than the one she thought they shared.

ending to a happy marriage


And suddenly that perfect ending, the “could have been,” was exposed for the delusion that it was.  The dream she had held so tightly to was a fantasy based on a man she created solely in her head.  If her ex was that man 14 years ago, he wasn’t any more. Because, well, time does that. It updates and changes us, despite our desire to maintain otherwise. What did exist, sitting in the body of someone she thought she loved, certainly was not the man she had constructed. And it was at that moment that Sarah was able to fully see her marriage. She was able to respect it, and to appreciate and honor the beauty in it. She realized she had wrongfully judged her husband, comparing him to an ideal that never was instead of allowing their relationship to thrive under a new set of ideals. She had unwittingly ignored the great things about her relationship, missing the beauty of the majestic horse by comparing it to a unicorn.

Never settle for a relationship

I tell my clients to never settle for a relationship. Never compromise on important qualities just to be with someone. You should always have a dream for what you want your relationship to be. But you have to be sure that the dream you hold strong in your heart and in your head isn’t a hologram of a relationship that, in all actuality, never was.

Don’t hold on furiously to a past image of something as the one and only truth. There have been great movies after The Sixth Sense. There have been endings that have surprised us still. And there is a dream that can exist in the now that is even better than the dream that existed then.  

Crystal Rice is a licensing as a graduate social worker (LGSW) and is certified in Advanced Trauma Treatment. She has worked as a therapist and coach and is skilled in creating an atmosphere of trust, collaboration and the possibility of change among couples. She believes in working with people’s strengths and offers honest feedback and ideas, also addresses unhelpful behavior patterns.

More by Crystal Rice

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