While listening to an episode of the popular podcast “Normal Gossip,” I was struck by something that guest Tracy Clayton said reflecting on a past relationship.
“I can say a lot of bad clearly because he’s an ex, but one of my favorite things about this particular ex is that he was so into gossip,” she remarked. “And we could scroll through Twitter threads together, and it really felt like we were one in those moments.”
We often hear biting jokes, rants and rueful comments about exes, but someone sharing fond memories or positive qualities about a former partner feels less familiar. Clayton, a writer and podcast host herself, is a proponent of looking back on the good times, as well as the bad. Speaking to HuffPost, she elaborated on her experience.
“We traveled the world, we grew together, we learned things, we laughed so, so much,” she recalled. “And those good times that we had, I wouldn’t trade for anything at all ever. Realizing that made me realize that the heartbreak was worth it, because without it I’d be devoid of so many smiles and happy moments and I’d be a completely different person today. Finding the good in a painful situation is what dulls the pain.”
Although you may feel a great deal of hurt and resentment toward your ex, there’s a reason you were with them. It’s only natural you had some wonderful experiences as a couple.
Still, reflecting on good times you shared with an ex can feel strange or even wrong, especially if time has passed and you’re with someone else. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to cherish positive memories from a past relationship, however.
Below, relationship experts break down these complicated emotions, patterns to look out for and tips for processing these good memories in a healthy way.
It’s perfectly natural to appreciate the good times you shared with an ex.
“It is absolutely OK to cherish memories and good times with an ex,” said Rachel Needle, a psychologist and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes. “Relationships don’t always end badly. And even when they do end badly, people typically remained in the relationship because there was some positive in it and some good times, which will lead to happy memories.”
Reflecting on positive experiences from a past relationship is natural and expected, even if you also harbor negative feelings for that person and have plenty of bad memories, too. Humans are complex, and it’s possible to feel contradictory emotions at once.
“With the end of any relationship there’s a grieving process that is a necessary element of honoring the relationship and moving forward toward new relationships,” said marriage and family therapist Becky Stuempfig. “Part of healthy grief is remembering both the good and bad times of previous relationships, and celebrating the good memories is not only healthy but a necessary aspect in moving forward. When a relationship ends, it becomes an important part of our life story and helps shape the person and partner we want to be in future relationships.”
Breaking up with someone doesn’t erase everything that happened before the relationship ended. Once the immediate painful emotions settle, you can more easily reflect on the relationship as a whole and appreciate the good parts. For instance, your ex’s favorite sports team could make headlines years after your breakup, reminding you of a fun experience you shared going to a game together.
“Most of us had lives and past relationships prior to our current one,” Needle said. “It is part of what made us who we are today. Over time these memories usually happen less often.”
There’s no reason to feel guilty about it.
“Remembering good times with an ex does not mean you still have feelings for them or want them back,” Needle said. “Remember that a memory is just a memory. It is a reminder of your past. We should be grateful for the good memories we have, acknowledge them, and then move on, and focus on and be grateful for what’s happening in the present.”
The idea that cherishing memories with an ex is a betrayal to the person you’re currently with is usually based on insecurities or past trauma, Needle added. You’re not having an emotional affair if you reminisce about a nice vacation you took during a past relationship.
“Instead of feeling bad during the times when memories of an ex come up, let yourself smile and be happy,” Needle said. “For some, they think about wanting to do those same things and make similar memories, but with their current partner.”
Marriage and family therapist Joy Berkheimer believes Western culture promotes a false notion that holding onto fond memories reduces your current capacity for love. She emphasized that love is not limited or finite, so acknowledging previous times in your life when you were in love with someone else does not take away from your feelings for your current partner.
“Just like you might look back on a childhood friendship fondly but have a new best friend,” Berkheimer said. “When you are with this new person, you’re enjoying their unique essence, their energy, what they bring out of you and how you show up in the world with them. Appreciating someone else does nothing to dampen that. It’s not a betrayal. The reality is nobody can be replaced, nobody can be reproduced, so there’s really no limit to being able to love a new partner and holding space in your heart for memories of others as well.”
Reflecting on positive memories can even be productive…
“Good memories with an ex can actually help you chart a path to a happier future,” said Damona Hoffman, a dating coach who hosts the “Dates & Mates” podcast. “I have my clients evaluate their past relationships and identify what worked, what they want to feel again, and what it was that attracted them to that person in the first place.”
Understanding the positive experiences and qualities of previous relationships can help inform what you’re looking for in a partner. As you grow and learn about yourself, you inevitably forge healthier relationships.
“You can think about the behavior patterns that you don’t want to repeat,” said relationship therapist Erica Turner. “You can acknowledge the personality traits or relational dynamics that you like and don’t like. You can reflect on the ways you may have betrayed yourself ― like hiding your true feelings or needs ― and think about the boundaries that you want to set for yourself in future relationships ― like speaking up when something is bothering you.”
As humans, we turn to relationships to meet some of our needs, such as the need to feel connection, attention, acceptance, closeness and love. So, when we go through a breakup, we lose a major source for the fulfillment of those needs.
“After a relationship ends, sometimes we struggle to move on because we can’t let go of that person,” Turner said. “On a deeper level, we struggle to accept that certain needs that this person was fulfilling ― or that we hoped they would fulfill ― are no longer being met. This is why it is critical to know what your relationship needs are and how to be in control of getting them met, either internally or externally.”
… As long as you aren’t looking through rose-colored glasses.
“Using past relationships as a tool to better understand yourself, your patterns and your needs can lead you to becoming your best self and cultivating deeper relationships,” Hoffman noted. “However, exes are exes for a reason. You have to keep this in mind as you are exploring past memories, so you’re not looking at them through rose-colored glasses.”
The fact that you can remember good times you shared with your ex does not excuse any bad behavior or mean they’re magically changed and capable of being the kind of partner you need in the long term. Don’t forget there were negative aspects as well, especially if you were in a toxic or abusive relationship.
“I would ask you to consider how remembering the good times serves you,” Turner advised. “Is it keeping you stuck? Is it allowing you to avoid the reality of what the relationship actually looked like? To help keep yourself grounded in that reality, I challenge you to reflect back on the entire relationship, not just the good times.”
She urged people to avoid “emotional reasoning,” which can lead you into a trap of feeling a sense of hope or potential that your ex is actually the one for you.
“Just because you feel a certain way, does not mean it’s true,” Turner said. “Ask yourself what your ex has actually shown you through their behavior that indicates they have healed, evolved, or grown in any way that indicates that a relationship with them would work.”
Be mindful if your reminiscing is getting obsessive.
“Cherishing memories of an ex doesn’t mean thinking about them every day,” Needle emphasized. “If you find yourself doing that, you might want to work on understanding what that is about. But having memories of someone you share an emotional and physical bond with is completely normal.”
If you feel yourself obsessing over good memories or even longing for your ex, you’re no longer simply honoring those good times and moving on.
“It’s important to identify when and where these memories come up,” Hoffman said. “Do they come to mind when you’re in a conflict in your current relationship? Are you looking for an emotional escape hatch into a rosy past that is most likely not as picture-perfect as you remember it? We feel guilty when we are using those good memories as a point of comparison in our current relationship.”
Take time to examine if your nostalgia about a past relationship is an indicator of a need that’s not being met in your current one. And even if you aren’t in a new relationship, consider whether clinging onto happy memories of your ex is preventing you from growing and moving forward with your life.
“You may be trying to get yourself out of the grief and sadness of the relationship ending and clinging onto better times instead of grieving the loss of how an imagined future with this person would be,” said Berkheimer, who advised keeping your distance from your ex in the aftermath of a breakup, even if they have the qualities you appreciate in a friend.
“It’s often uncomfortable to hear about new experiences they are having without you, or when they start seeming like they aren’t as sad as you are, or they are dating new people. It can be pretty crushing and it’s like having that breakup over and over again.”
And remember that there are healthy ways to cherish old memories.
“There is a distinction between cherishing good past memories versus truly longing for your ex and living in the past,” Stuempfig said. “It can be helpful to process these feelings with another person, such as a trusted friend or therapist.”
Verbalizing your emotions with someone else can lead to greater clarity and understanding that those positive memories are a way to assess what we enjoyed and learned from previous relationships.
“These relationships are part of us, and it can be emotionally damaging to try to repress good feelings that we experienced in the past,” Steumpfig said. “By honoring these feelings, we can move through them and embrace new relationships, new life stories.”
However, Steumpfig emphasized that it’s also important to reflect on the negative memories to assess what worked and didn’t work in past relationships, and to envision what we want and don’t want in future ones. And whatever mental exercises you undergo as you process past experiences, always be kind to yourself.
“If you’re going through a breakup or confused about feelings for an ex, have compassion for yourself,” Berkheimer said. “Do not beat yourself up about any of the emotions that come up, for remaining hopeful, for forgetting how you were hurt, for missing someone ― it is literally the same as losing a loved one. This relationship in its past form is no longer alive and it’s OK to grieve that. It is OK for you to go through the emotions and process a breakup, however messy or long that may take.”