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.
Dr. Gary Brown, relationship expert and licensed marriage and family therapist
Susan Winter, bestselling author and relationship expert