What Does Being "The One That Got Away" Mean? Here’s How The Experts Explain It

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 does being “the one that got away" mean, really? Is it actually a thing, or is it just something we heard about in a Katy Perry song once? Is it normal or healthy to continue carrying a torch for an ex that way?

If there's one thing I've learned in life, it’s that half of growing older and wiser isn't just learning about things that matter, but also unlearning the things that don't. I couldn't help but wonder if the concept of "the one that got away" is actually a real thing or just a romantic notion we choose to hold on to. Is it something that matters? To help answer that question, I reached out to experts for 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. 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 “pretty much how 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 — or maybe even realize that they were potentially the one you might very well want to spend the rest of your life with.”

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.”

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

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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. For example, “if you find yourself at a point later on in life and keep on letting great potential partners slip through your hands,” this could be a sign that “your judgment has been impacted in a way that you can’t recognize a good thing when you have it,” Brown says. Winter agrees, saying “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.”

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, saying, “If it puts a smile on your face, then keep the indulgent memory.” 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 you “Make peace with the fact that this is a fantasy. The longing for a reality that never occurred is all in your head.” She adds, “If this line of thinking stops you from enjoying the love that you have right now, analyze its basis. 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: But what if they really were “the one,” but maybe the timing wasn't right and you could actually have a future? If that's the case, Dr. Brown’s advice is to 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 and release those feelings.

I guess the true takeaway here is that all those love songs were right — “the one that got away" is real, and it’s OK to harbor that crush so long as it doesn’t stop you from seeking out future love.

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