Are you holding out for the one that got away?
It's easy to idealise past relationships as near- perfect, but should we abandon romantic nostalgia now we're older and supposedly wiser?
It's the bedrock of the Hollywood rom-com industry: the sepia glow of the ghosts of partners past.
The long shadow cast by a hot summer romance. And in the real world, if questioned, most of us could probably admit to having a special someone in their past that Got Away. According to online surveying site SkinnyScoop.com, 71 percent of women polled have kept love notes from an ex-flame and another 64 percent admit to days, weeks, even months where they cannot get a past boyfriend off their mind. And while some individuals are satisfied with occasionally dipping into the fantasy, a hefty 67 percent of respondents have reached out to an ex-flame to test the waters.
In her book It's Not You: 28 (Wrong) Reasons Why You're Still Single, Sara Eckel, writes of a friend haunted by a break-up she made in her younger days.
"A friend recently told me she had bad karma for breaking up with the college boyfriend who adored her," she recalls. "She said, 'It's like I wasn't ready for it, all that love.' But if you weren't ready, you weren't ready.
"I had a relationship in my early 20s that was never quite right," she adds. "I convinced myself at the time that even though I wasn't feeling certain things, being in this relationship was being a grown-up, and you don't get everything.
"It wasn't like there was anyone else clamouring to be with me, but the relationship made me miserable and I never loved him in the way that, frankly, he deserved to be loved."
In her mid-thirties, Eckel bumped into this ex-partner a number of times in her native New York: "I thought it was fate telling me that I should be with this person. It was like, 'am I dooming myself to being single by rejecting this one man that fate wants me to be with? When I broke up with him years ago, I thought there would be a lot of men out there that would love me the way he loved me. Yet I realised that the way he loved me was quite uncommon, and he saw something in me that most men did not."
It stands to reason that an innocent decision you make to see other people in your late teens or early 20s could seal your romantic destiny. If things haven't worked out so well in the five, 10 or even 20 years since then, it's all too easy to reframe that person and that relationship. Eventually, The One You Broke Up With becomes an even more mythological, wistful creature: The One That Got Away. Even the language smacks of something slipping through one's fingers, of loss snatched from the jaws of love – it implies fault, blame.
It doesn't even have to be a "proper" ex – it's also incredibly easy to long for an imagined, possible love that never actually happened. People hold a candle not just for those they've been romantically involved with, but for those they could have been happy with, in another dimension. Sometimes, this tantalising prospect is even far more intoxicating than the old familiar; why didn't I tell them how I felt, kiss them, act on that impulse?
The problem too, is this: people will invariably look back on old or unfounded relationships – ones unfettered by mortgages, audits, school runs, responsibilities – with no shortage of affection. Early love is simple, powerful, intoxicating and exotic. Best of all, there was less to lose. If, as the maxim goes, the first cut is the deepest, we'll carry early relationships through our lives as a matter of course.
"It's easy to idealise that supposedly simpler love," says Daniel Jones, author of Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject. "What people don't realise is that The One That Got Away is probably in a relationship that feels an awful lot like the one you're in right now."
The technology afforded to millennials has kicked things up a notch, too: thanks to Facebook and the like, it's possible to see your ex married to another, ostensibly 'wiser' person, and the two of them enjoying their joined life of splendour. The holidays. The kids. The promotions. The parties. Thanks to social media, we get to enjoy every one of life's milestones with them, and occasionally wonder if it couldn't have all been yours. Through the prism of social networking, it's natural to forget the reasons the romance floundered in the first place. "Facebook gives us this unprecedented way of bragging about having an ordinary life," asserts Eckel. "But you get a really strong sense of what you're missing." And, those past relationships can be kicked back into action with a few Facebook clicks. Jones, who helms The New Yorker's 'Modern Love' column, has been inundated with such stories.
"I hear about this phenomenon all the time, and it's becoming more common," he explains. "We don't want to settle too early with the love of our life. I've encountered lots of people who break up with someone because they think it's too early to find someone.
"It's funny – in a tragic way – to hear people fantasise about a past relationship and how they might reignite it. They're trying to dissolve their current relationship, maintain their relationships with their children and still magically wind up together," he notes. "People so desperately want to make the leap out of what they have, and they think revisiting the past will make them happy.
"On the other hand, I've heard plenty of stories of people who have been in failing marriages, or have been widowed, and have connected with people from their past very successfully," he adds. "There is something really comforting about those reconnections."
But why do people seem to cling onto the past? Is it proof that one can't handle the demands of the here and now?
"It's more to do with the boredom of midlife," opines Jones. "You're not necessarily in a bad relationship ... it's just got some age. We're not quite used to relationships being sustained by love ... up until not so long ago, marriage had practical reasons for existing. Now we have parallel skills in a marriage and the only thing holding these relationships together is love. That's a high hurdle.
"It's a good thing that we're not trapped in marriages or relationships for practical reasons," he adds. "But it does fuel this idea of a soulmate, or someone getting us the whole time. It's a lot to expect."
According to psychologist Allison Keating, of BWell Clinic in Dublin (www.bwell.ie), fixating on The One That Got Away is a psychological safety net, but could also be a defence mechanism. "If you're still connected to the fantasy of another relationship that's moved on, it's hard to engage wholeheartedly in a new relationship, and that's a form of self-sabotage. It's safer – a part of you doesn't want to have to deal with the vulnerability involved in being in a relationship."
And so the question begs to be asked. What to do if you're clinging to an idealised version of a relationship from days of yore?
"I wish I had the answer, because I would make millions, but you have to try and rid yourself of the fantasy, and the idea that that relationship is going to be better than the one you're currently in," says Jones. "It can be especially hard if that person from the past is so available. There's so much about online contact that's about control and fantasy, and it takes a lot of willpower to know when to shut it off."
Keating adds: "It's an unfair thing to compare one partner with another, but all humans do it. It's better to sit back and ask, 'what would I like more of in the relationship I'm in?' It may be safe to look back into the past, but putting the work back into a relationship and fixing it is the only real way forward."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent