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Was Your Relationship with Your Ex Really That Bad?

Possibly, but thinking it was actually helps you move on.

When I think about being with my ex-husband, even in the most mundane of ways like just sitting on the coach and watching TV together, I feel that kind of anger that starts in my jaw.

I’m not alone in having negative reactions when I think about my past relationships either.

One of my readers e-mailed me recently and said, “When I see photos of him [my ex], I feel like throwing up. Is this normal?”

Even though I know I was blissfully happy many times with my ex, including on our wedding day, I seem to now view my memories with him with a wider lens. All I could see at the time was the sunshine, but I wasn’t aware of the tornado heading my way.

What about for you? How do you think about your last romantic relationship? Mostly positive? Or (more likely) mostly negative?

In an article published in Feb 2020, Smyth and colleagues discuss how we may deceive ourselves when we judge the quality of our relationships retrospectively.

What Smyth and colleagues found explains that what I and my reader feel about our exes is actually perfectly normal. Their conclusion is that we view our previous relationships through the lens of the after.

We can’t let go of our present (after the after) and view our past through our former lens of ignorance.

You likely can’t think back to that time when you were happily sitting next to your partner and holding their hand, knowing that later you’d find out they were cheating on you.

You might want to rebut me by saying, “My ex and I had a WONDERFUL break-up! We consciously uncoupled as easily as unbuckling a seatbelt, and they’re a wonderful person!”

That’s great and all, but this study showed that, no matter the reasons for the break-up, “individuals judged their previous relationships as having been more negative and remembered their former romantic partners as less compatible.”

Negative retroactive bias happens regardless of whenever and however a relationship ends. Why do we always see our past relationships badly?

It’s a good question. Why can’t we remember that really great concert we went to with our ex without wanting to hulk-smash something?

One possibility is that it makes us feel better, especially in the time directly following a break-up.

If you believed your relationship with your now ex was all glorious goodness, wouldn’t that trap you in a state of wretchedness??

Thinking badly about your previous relationship is actually good for your mental health by helping you adjust to your new reality.

Negative bias works in your favor. It helps you let go, move on, and seek a better relationship for your future.

Another possibility for your bias may be that your original happiness/excitement, etc. about your partner was unfounded.

Let’s say, back when you were dating, you went to a really great concert with your now ex-partner. You told yourself and everyone else that you had a great time, but in actuality, you might have been watching the show a little sad that your partner wasn’t a little more affectionate.

We often overvalue our relationship and compatibility when we’re newly involved/in love, so you may have been positively biased while you were dating. After you two broke up though, you were better able to see you and your partner for what you were: incompatible.

As the authors of the study note, “The means for relationship quality in the present research all fall above the midrange of the scale, suggesting that participants did not completely derogate their relationships retrospectively; rather, their extreme positive view was tempered.”

While reading this study, I thought of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, a couple has a painful break-up and each chooses to have the memories of their relationship erased. They later meet and begin dating once again.

There’s always a reason why we were drawn to our exes in the first place, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s likely either because it wasn’t that great to begin with or the other person just wasn’t on the same page.

It’s okay to think your previous partner and/or relationship sucked. It’s not only okay; it has a psychological basis to it to help your mental health. Embrace your beliefs about your partner’s suckage in the short-term, forgive, and move on.

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