Relationships
"TOTGA" meaning: An ex from your past whom you wish you could still be with now.

Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About “The One That Got Away”

Plus, how to finally let go and move on.

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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.

What “The One That Got Away” Actually Means
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Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent relationship expert in Los Angeles, 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.” But now that relationship is long gone.

For bestselling author and relationship expert Susan Winter, the concept of “the one that got away” is also rooted in “hopeful fantasy." She explains, “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.

When It’s Not Healthy To Hold On To That Fantasy

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.

How To Finally Let Go
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If it's all a fantasy, then the best thing to do is to let go, right? Well, 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.

Experts:

Dr. Gary Brown, relationship expert and licensed marriage and family therapist

Susan Winter, bestselling author and relationship expert