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How to move on from the one that got away

You’re reading Unrequited, our series into one-sided love (Picture: Getty)

‘I check his Facebook every few months,’ says Hayley* of her first love. ‘Deep down, I know we had issues, but I can’t help but wonder if I made a huge mistake by letting him go.’

Hayley and her childhood sweetheart, Craig* had been inseparable as teens, but broke up while at university.

Despite it being almost 20 years since they were an item, Hayley says she still has doubts over their split.

‘I’m married now, and very happy,’ she says, ‘but Craig will always be the one that got away.’

From My Best Friends Wedding to 500 Days of Summer, and Katy Perry’s song that’s literally called The One That Got Away, if we’re not thinking about our exes, we’re watching movies and singing songs that remind us of them.

‘Popular culture is obsessed with the one that got away,’ says Myisha Battle, a clinical sexologist, sex and dating coach, and author of This Is Supposed To Be Fun.

‘It’s because society is also obsessed with the idea of “The One”,’ says Myisha. ‘Daters feel pressure to find their one single person, instead of thinking about dating as a process, where we get to know different people and learn about ourselves along the way.

‘We limit the possibilities of the relationships we can have when we only think about one person being a suitable match. And it’s easy to romanticise someone that we think should have been that one person.’

A survey by Superdrug Online Doctor revealed that 71% of people think about the one who got away, and 60% are secretly wishing to reignite their spark with that person.

That’s certainly the case for Hayley, who tried to win her ex back after their break up.

She explains: ‘We met at school when I was 17, and he was my first proper boyfriend. It was intense, young love.’

But when Hayley went to university in Liverpool, a year before Craig, their relationship became strained.

‘I was a student, with a new group of friends and having the time of my life.

‘But then we decided that Craig would also come to university in Liverpool, and we’d rent a flat together.

‘Suddenly, it all felt a bit too serious. I didn’t want to become an old married couple and I acted out, cheating on him with a guy on holiday. I felt like there was more to experience, so I ended things.’

But soon, Hayley started having doubts.

‘About a month after we split, my grandpa died,’ says Hayley. ‘It was the wake up call I needed to realise how special Craig was, and that I didn’t want to lose him.

‘I begged him to take me back, but he refused. He said I’d hurt him too much. I was devastated.’

When Hayley graduated and moved to London, the pair slowly lost contact. Hayley met her now husband, but she often found herself checking up on Craig.

She says: ‘I saw on Facebook that he was in a relationship, and the next thing I knew, they were married and expecting a baby. I was surprised by how much it stung.’

Hayley started wondering if she’d made a mistake, and even mentioned it to her mum.

‘Mum thought I’d lost the plot,’ she remembers. ‘She said we were never compatible – he wanted a suburban family life, which I’d have hated.

‘She’s right – I love living in a city and I don’t plan on having kids. But every so often, I still wonder, “What if?”‘

Hayley has now been happily married for seven years, but admits she still wonders what her life would have been like with her ‘one that got away’.

‘I dumped him, and I think that’s part of the reason why I have doubts,’ she says. ‘Craig wasn’t the one who made the decision, so he had no choice but to move on. Whereas I feel like the power was in my hands, and I’ll never be 100% sure if I did the right thing.’

How to get over an ex

Pippa Murphy, the sex and relationship expert at Condoms UK shares her advice: 

  • Allow yourself time to grieve. Whether you were together for two months or two years, if you try to pretend that your breakup hasn’t impacted you and push your feelings aside, you’ll only create bigger challenges for yourself further down the road. Embracing your true feelings as they come will make it easier for you to heal in the long-term.
  • Stop all contact. Studies show that people who respectfully cut all contact for a short period allow themselves to heal fast and have more amicable breakups.
  • Being dumped is a blessing in disguise. A relationship doesn’t exist if the other person doesn’t feel as strongly as you did. You deserve someone who is on the same page as you.
  • Remove reminders. If you own any of your ex’s items, give them everything back as soon as possible. The phrase out of sight, out of mind couldn’t be truer in this sense.”  
  • Think about what you have learnt. Once you’re over the initial upset stage and are feeling mentally stronger, it may be a good time to review your former relationship. What went wrong? What could you have done differently? What have you learned? What do you want in a future partner? And what is the silver lining out of all of it?
  • Focus on you. Think about hobbies you’ve wanted to try out, places you’ve wanted to visit, and the positive people you want to spend more time with.

Dwelling on past relationships can affect your present, and future.

Myisha says: ‘Each person that you date is different and unique. And while it is tempting to size people up to something you had with a previous partner, it takes you out of the moment of getting to know the person you’re dating.

‘It doesn’t allow you to make space for the possibility that someone else could be an even better match for you than your ex.’

So how do we attempt to move on?

A practical exercise you can do is list all the annoying things your ‘one that got away’ would do,’ says relationship therapist, Alexis Friedlander.

‘You can also speak to good friends who have a clear and objective view on your past relationship.

‘When you realise the consistent message from them is, “He wasn’t right for you,” it’s time to think about why you are so attached to this person.

‘It’s also worth remembering that our brains are more likely to remember positive emotions, than unpleasant ones, known as ‘the fading aspect bias.’

‘With time, we tend to minimise bad things that happened to us. What felt like a complicated, conflictual relationship can become passionate and lively in our minds.’

Finding closure can also help you move on from the one that got away.

‘You have to be the one to give yourself closure,’ says Myisha. Rather than focusing on an imagined future with “The One”, think about the lessons you learnt about yourself from that relationship.

And if rituals are your thing, that can help too. ‘Write out all of the things that you’re grateful for that person showing you. Thank them and release them. You could do this by writing their name on a piece of paper and burning it,’ says Myisha.

‘It can be a powerful way to let your ‘one that got away’ slip away intentionally so that you can move on to an even greater love.’


You’re reading Unrequited,‘s week-long series exploring the confusing, exhilarating, heart-breaking realities of one-sided love. For more love stories, visit our dedicated Unrequited page.

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