What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?

One Day has hurtled the topic of heartbreak back onto our cultural radar, which begs the question: What exactly should you do if you still love your ex?
Published: March 13, 2024
What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Ask anybody who’s ever had their heart hurt, broken or totally torn into tatters and you’ll be sure to find somebody who’s willing to question the age-old sentiment of it being better to have loved and to have lost than never to have loved at all.

In fact, in news that is sure to bring joy only to the shareholders of Kleenex, heartbreak has hurtled its way back back onto our radar thanks to the recent Netflix adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2009 bestseller, One Day. In 2021, the streaming service finally commissioned the series, which stars The White Lotus star Leo Woodall as heartthrob Dexter Mayhew and This Is Going To Hurt’s Ambika Mod as the titular Emma Morley, and it made its debut on the platform in February 2024. For the uninitiated among us, the story tells the will-they-won’t-they, decades-spanning love story of two friends who find that somehow life has a funny way of derailing their plans. The love between the pair is real and palpable, but every time the platonic mask each of them is wearing begins to slip, life forces them to readjust it before they can truly see the other clearly. By the time both of their vision is finally clear, the unthinkable happens.

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The question nestled at the heart of the story is the sticky subject of loving somebody who cannot and ceases to be yours, which begs the question: is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? What happens if, without spoiling One Day, you still love your ex? And what exactly does it mean? ELLE UK caught up with relationship therapist Dr. Priscilla Short from The Blue Door Practice to provide some clarity on loving an ex, what it means, and what exactly we should do about it.

Why might people want to get back together with an ex?

There are many reasons, but often it is rooted in wanting to get out of the grief we feel when we lose a person or life that we had. Grieving is hard and so we do our best to avoid that pain if we possibly can,' Dr. Short says. 'If we are the person who has been left then we have to grieve the loss of our hopes and dreams about our future life together. This can feel unbearable and so we excuse ourselves from the pain and grief by fantasising about getting back together with our ex. But this can keep us very stuck in bitterness and resentment and prevent us from moving forward into a new future.

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What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

As with the story of One Day, there is a constant realignment of needs, wants and expectations within any form of relationship, and stepping away from the dynamic of a partnership can provide new insight. ‘Regret or a new perspective can also change our views on our ex,’ Dr. Short says. ‘If we were the one who did the dumping then it is often because we wanted to get away from something we didn’t like or away from a future that we imagined to be better. If this doesn’t work out then we can be pulled back into fantasising about the future we would have had with our ex if we had just stayed, again getting us out of the grief of disappointment.

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But Dr. Short is clear to reiterate the point that the grass isn’t always greener. She adds: ‘People often leave a relationship because they fantasise that there is a better partner for them who won’t require them to work so hard on their relationship. The degree to which this turns out to be true will often determine whether someone fantasises about going back to what they previously had.

Rupture requires repair and to repair we have to do the work

Often people leave because they are connected to all the things they find difficult in a relationship and also because they are focusing on the person they were with rather than on the dynamic in which they may have played a part,’ Dr. Short explains. ‘But once someone has left they may become more connected to the things they appreciated about their ex and the relationship they previously had. This can lead to a greater acceptance of the things they don’t get in the relationship and help them focus instead on building upon what was good.

What are the benefits of getting back together with an ex?

There's a moment in One Day, when Dex and Emma finally see each other clearly at the same time and realise they were always romantically meant to be together, that an invisible thread bound them together throughout their lives, and when they finally reunite, their union is all the sweeter because of the distance they've travelled together. This is seemingly just one of the benefits of reuniting with an ex.

What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

If people do the work to address the things that weren’t working in the relationship then getting back together can be a transformative process for a couple,’ Dr. Short says, warning that reuniting with an ex does depend on the quality of the relationship itself. ‘But if nothing has changed and they get back together just to take away a present pain then more often than not nothing will change, no one will grow and the same pain cycle will repeat itself. These are the couples who yo-yo in and out of togetherness. Some couples find it hard to develop the intimacy and connection needed for a stable and loving relationship and instead live in the intensity of the make up and break up cycle. Intensity can very often mask the lack of intimacy in a relationship.

Ultimately, she says to consider this very simple sentiment before reuniting with an ex: ‘Rupture requires repair and to repair we have to do the work to become more deeply connected before moving forward.

How can you tell if getting back together with an ex is the right thing to do?

Staring down the barrel of a life lived without the person you have spent time investing love into can be hard, but there are a few simple steps to follow in order to gauge whether it is actually the right thing for you and your life to reunite with an ex. Firstly, Dr. Short recommends analysing and weighing up your needs and whether they can actually be met in the relationship. ‘Will it be better for you to go back and why? This needs to be thought about over the long-term, and not just to manage an immediate short-term grief and sense of loneliness,’ she says. ‘If we go back and nothing has changed, then this is likely that nothing will change. So we either need to accept that the things we previously found difficult won’t change so that we suffer less. Or we need to work on changing the things that broke the relationship apart.

What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Ultimately, while this is entirely subjective to the couple in question, what has driven a couple apart has to be addressed before the wounds in a relationship can be truly healed efficaciously. ‘If the process of breaking up has been transformative and the couple have addressed the issues and found a new way of being together then the relationship has the potential to be better and stronger as a result of the break up,’ she adds.

How do you know when the right thing to let something go is?

The hardest part of any relationship ending is letting go of the future you'd imagined for yourself and your partner and allowing yourself to live in the uncertainty of the present without having a clear vision for what may lie ahead. Having conviction in the unknown is hard, but the process of letting a relationship go looks different for everybody.

What Should You Do if You Still Love Your Ex?
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

We stay in relationships for many reasons, with research showing that the three main reasons are related to our level of investment in the relationship, the quality of the alternatives and our level of relationship satisfaction,’ Dr. Short says. ‘But sometimes people leave otherwise happy relationships because there is some really important need in them that they perceive can be met only through leaving the relationship.

If we go back and nothing has changed, then this is likely that nothing will change

Dr. Short is clear that a factor that could influence a persona’s ability to let a relationship go is the role of abuse and coercive control. ‘People often know they want to leave, and indeed it would be best for them to leave, but they have lost belief in themselves and had their self-esteem contaminated and eroded by their abuser,’ she says, nodding to the evidence that people in emotionally or physically abusive relationships attempt to leave up to seven times before they make the final move to leave. ‘And some never make it. It can be very hard for family and friends who love a person to see them stay in a relationship that is doing them so much harm. These things are never simple, and there really are many forces at play.’

This article was first seen ELLE UK.

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