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Why do regrets over lost love often stop us being happy – and how can we move forward?

I am happily married, but I have never been able to stop missing my ex partner. The regrets I have affect me every day. My new life is wonderful, but I just can’t be happy. How can I move forward? Anonymous, 38, London.

“Any time gone by was better,” wrote the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique in the 15th century, perfectly capturing what a powerful emotion nostalgia is. This simple line reveals that longing for the past is a universal feeling, experienced by people all over the world throughout history. We remember the past fondly because, being unchangeable, it is also unthreatening – unlike the present and the future. It can be a refuge too, especially when stripped by us of its uglier and more inconvenient truths.

Research into nostalgia has found this emotion to be quite useful: it reduces loneliness (by boosting our sense of social belonging), increases positive self-regard and generates good mood. It can also increase a sense of meaning in life (no small feat), by promoting feelings of social connectedness.

Nostalgia is likely at the heart of your dilemma. Past loves, after all, can all too easily be remembered without their nagging doubts and niggling details. Consequently, remember that those old relationships broke down for a reason. It is important to bear this in mind to avoid idealising a liaison that, being in the past, is uncorrupted by the mundane pressures and little disappointments of daily life.

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Unreliable memories

We are often nostalgic over matters of the heart and particularly tend to think fondly of our first romance. But while the first cut may be “the deepest”, as the Cat Stevens’ song goes, it is only so because early adolescent romances are marinated in hormones and impact a very impressionable young brain. Consequently, like so many other “firsts” in life, a first love leaves an indelible mark.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to remain in the past. As the American psychologist Nancy Kalish has argued:

Strong emotional memories are not imprints. They do not prevent later bonds from occurring that are just as strong or stronger. They do not determine our behaviour. The choice is ours, as humans, to follow the found person or to let him or her go.

Memories are rarely an accurate guide to the past – it makes sense to be sceptical of them. We constantly pick and choose what to remember. If you want to view your past love as perfect, you are more likely to remember the instances in which your ex was wonderful than the times they were in fact annoying, difficult and outright mean.

Research also suggests that our memories become distorted over time, the more we think and talk about them, the more we focus on certain details that we’re currently interested in, while we forget others. Memory is therefore partly influenced by our own motivations. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we sometimes even invent completely false memories of things that never happened – no matter how good our memory is.

Difficult love

While the intensity of young romance makes it a very attractive subject for drama, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, your dilemma brings to mind a very different love story: Casablanca.

In this 1942 film, Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), reignite the romance they had in Paris before the second world war. Ultimately, however, Rick’s surprisingly high moral standards force him to sacrifice their love in order to help Ilsa and her husband, a resistance hero, flee Vichy-controlled Casablanca. Surrendering a love interest to a rival as part of the war effort doesn’t sound very romantic, but millions of viewers thought it was.

The component in the Casablanca story that is relevant to this question is the fact that Ilsa abandoned Rick in Paris when she learned that her husband had not been killed by the Nazis, as she had mistakenly thought. Ilsa and Rick had been forced apart by difficult life circumstances, as often happens in times of war.

That said, you may want to ask yourself how happy you really are. If a relationship struggles from frequent fights, character incompatibility, or increasing boredom, one has to suspect that yet another attempt to save it would probably have the same outcome. The actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton might be a good example of this second category, even though it seems clear that they did love each other very passionately. Taylor even said that “after Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door”. Their passion sustained the interest of the public, but it wasn’t enough to sustain their hearts.

Sometimes, breaking up is necessary, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it because we are scared of feeling regret. Ending a relationship forces us to admit a failure, experience regret and eventually move on rather than remaining in an unhappy status quo forever.

Reunited at last?

Is it, however, ever a good idea to end a relationship because of an ex? Kalish started the Lost Love Project back in 1993 from her base in California State University. The aim was to carry out a survey of men and women who had tried to reunite with their old flames.

Beyond saving? Shutterstock

In the first phase of the project, she found that two-thirds of the 1,001 young participants had reunited with their high school sweethearts and their success rate in rekindling their love and consolidating it into a stable relationship was 78% – a strikingly high figure.

Many of them were forced to separate when they were young as a result of parental disapproval, or other practical issues. Because of this, Kalish warned parents against dismissing their teenage children’s passions as “just puppy love”. But the second phase of the study revealed that married participants who tried to do the same thing ran into all sorts of perhaps predictable difficulties such as being caught cheating. Only 5% of these lost lovers ended up marrying each other, often remaining in their original marriages.

The prospect of relighting an old flame can be tempting, but it’s not always the best idea. In our internet era, getting in touch with old lovers is much easier than it used to be. There are, in fact, websites specifically dedicated to this purpose. But when either party is in a stable relationship with someone else, approaching an ex with the idea of exploring a possible rekindling of passions past is a risky exercise.

Remember that a new partner can never be superior in every single respect to the old one, who you may have perhaps idealised. The glamorous past beats the mundane present and your ageing new partner, asleep on the sofa, perhaps dribbling a little bit, can’t compete with the young, tanned, and smiling memory of an old flame, set in a happy Mediterranean holiday. And don’t forget that both you and your ex have probably changed since you were together, meaning you may not at all be as compatible as you used to be. In any case, happiness doesn’t reside in the past, not least because humans are not really designed to be happy, something I explore in my latest book “You are not meant to be happy. So stop trying”. As a proxy of happiness, nostalgia’s futile efforts to revive the past will be worse than a feeling of hope for the future.

Moving on

You want to move on, which is the correct attitude after a breakup. There is evidence that any type of continuing involvement with an ex-partner following the dissolution of a relationship, perhaps through social media, for instance, is an obstacle in the healing process. So aiming for a clean cut, if this hasn’t happened already, will be the first step.

Having difficulties in letting go of the memory of a lover may be due to an insecure attachment to adults during our childhood, which in some cases may even lead to internet surveillance of the lost lover. In order to avoid getting stuck in this type of purgatory, one should practise a certain amount of self-discipline and willpower, once a decision to move on has been reached. Therapy can help when willpower is not sufficient.

You can also find inspiration in Bogart’s role in Casablanca and how he let his lover go when he felt there was no satisfactory alternative way forward, and how he relabelled their love affair as something they could both remember and treasure: “We’ll always have Paris.”

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