“The One That Got Away” Meaning, According To Relationship Experts – Elite DailyRelationship
Plus, how to finally let go and move on.
Does the phrase "the one that got away" fill you with a bittersweet longing? Did someone’s face just pop into your head? Was it your own because you have exes who refer to you as that? We all think we know what people mean when they say this, but have you ever really stopped to wonder: What is the meaning of “the one that got away,” really? Is it a real thing, or just something we heard about in a Katy Perry song years ago? Is it normal or healthy to continue carrying a torch for an ex that way?
Movies, love songs, and books can leave you wondering if the concept of "the one that got away" is actually a real thing or simply a romantic notion we’ve been told to hold on to. Is it ever really possible to let go of someone you regret ending things with? To help answer that question, experts spoke to Elite Daily to share their take on what the phrase actually means, if it’s healthy to hold on to an ex, and how to let go when you’re ready (because you can move on and start fresh). Here’s what they had to say.
Dr. Gary Brown, a Los Angeles-based relationship expert, tells Elite Daily the definition of “the one that got away” is exactly as it sounds. “It means that there was someone who, in hindsight, we regret not being with because when we look [back] we feel that they may have truly been ‘the one’ for us that we might want to have known better,” he says — or worse, “[you may] even realize that they were potentially the one you might very well want to spend the rest of your life with,” he says. But now that relationship is long gone.
From bestselling author and relationship expert Susan Winter’s point of view, the concept of “the one that got away” is also rooted in “hopeful fantasy." She tells Elite Daily, “Perhaps we knew someone socially, but for extenuating reasons, neither party was able to pursue a real relationship. Our mind happily fills in the details of a wonderful romantic future with this person. Or, we were romantically involved with an individual but a misunderstanding occurred that was never corrected. This scenario allows us to imagine a happy resolution, and subsequently, [a] happy relationship.”
Basically, you’re letting self-written fan fiction live in your head rent free — and you should at least consider channeling those fantasy narrative skills into real creative outlets, instead of letting it linger in your thoughts and potentially erode your love life.
While Dr. Brown says that holding a torch for an ex isn’t automatically unhealthy, it does have the potential to become a problem if it starts affecting your present and future relationships. “If you find yourself at a point later on in life [where you] keep on letting great potential partners slip through your hands, your judgment has been impacted in a way that you can’t recognize a good thing when you have it,” Brown says.
You certainly don’t want to end up like Taylor Swift’s Evermore narrator in the bonus track “Right Where You Left Me,” frozen forever in the restaurant where, with dust now collecting on her pinned up hair, her lover left her, as time continues to go on around her — heavy stuff. You won’t succumb to the same tragic fate, but it’s still important not to get caught up clinging onto someone who distracts you from living in the now.
“Dwelling upon ‘the one that got away’ is unhealthy if it stops us from enjoying our present day partnership, or stops us from seeking partnerships,” adds Winter.
Oh, and pro tip: Stalking the Instagram of “the one who got away” won’t make anything change. It will only stoke the fire of your own attachment and heartbreak.
Truthfully, it can sometimes be hard to recognize within yourself that you are still clinging to an ex as “the one that got away.” Even if you tell yourself and your friends that you are completely over them, deep down that might not actually be the case. The sooner you can see that you’re still holding on to them and romanticizing what could have been, the sooner you can do something about it.
One of the biggest signs that you’re not yet over an ex is that you just can’t think of being with anyone else yet. “If the idea of being with someone else is something you can’t think about, you might still have feelings,” Stef Safran, matchmaker and founder of Stef And The City, previously told Elite Daily. “The idea of them meeting someone else, no matter how soon, bothers you.”
Maybe when you’re dating, nobody compares to “the one that got away.” Even if you get along with new people you meet, you can’t keep your ex off your mind in a way that prevents you from taking it a step further with anyone new. “When you date, it seems like no one else has quite the same spark that your ex had,” breakup and dating specialist Cherlyn Chong from Steps to Happyness previously told Elite Daily. “No one else can interest you like your ex could, and you find yourself often disappointed and dejected in your search for the right person.”
You might also be holding on to things that serve as a representation of your ex. “If you can’t let go of pictures or things in your home and you talk about them as though they aren’t an ex, this might mean you can’t let go of the life that you shared and the things that were a part of this life,” Safran said. That goes for social media, too. You’re definitely still holding onto them in some sense if you’re constantly keeping tabs on their social media.
Of course, most people think about the “what ifs” when it comes to former partners. However, if you’re letting those thoughts stonewall you from connecting with new romantic prospects, you’re probably having trouble detaching yourself from your ex. As sex and intimacy coach Irene Fehr previously told Elite Daily, "From the wondering, dreaming, thinking about ‘what ifs’ or ‘what should have beens’ with an ex, still being connected with them takes emotional energy — and that is energy that cannot go to a current partner.”
If it’s all a fantasy, then the best thing to do is to let go, right? Here’s where things get a little more complicated. In some cases, Winter thinks it’s completely fine to let that torch stay lit. “If it puts a smile on your face, then keep the indulgent memory,” she says.
Really, the only time this is a cause for concern is when it’s negatively impacting your current and future relationships. In that case, she recommends that you “make peace with the fact that this is a fantasy. The longing for a reality that never occurred is all in your head.”
“If this line of thinking stops you from enjoying the love that you have right now, analyze its basis,” Winter says. “There’s no way to know you would’ve had a happy outcome with this person. Deconstructing this fantasy is your key to mental and emotional freedom.”
I know what you’re thinking: What if they really were “the one,” but maybe the timing wasn’t right, and you could actually still have a future? Just look at Bennifer 2.0 — Jennifer Lopez reportedly saw Ben Affleck as “the one who got away,” and the two have rekindled their love a whopping 17 years later, showing that there truly is hope for all of the hopeless romantics out there. If that’s the case, Dr. Brown advises that you speak your truth.
“If you still want them in your life, you should absolutely let them know," he says. "Even if it doesn’t work out, you don’t want to be on your deathbed, looking back on your life and regretting that you didn’t at least try to go for it. I’ve seen people live and die with that regret. You don’t really have anything to lose by letting them know.”
However, if they don’t reciprocate, then it’s time to follow Winter’s advice, release those feelings, and save the trope for juicy TV show plot lines and Olivia Rodrigo albums to come. The true takeaway here is that all those heartbroken love songs were right — “the one that got away" is real, and it’s OK to harbor those nostalgic, wistful feelings so long as it doesn’t stop you from seeking out future love.
Dr. Gary Brown, relationship expert and licensed marriage and family therapist
Susan Winter, bestselling author and relationship expert
Stef Safran, matchmaker and founder of Stef And The City
Cherlyn Chong, breakup and dating specialist from Steps to Happyness
Irene Fehr, sex and intimacy coach
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