- Romantic nostalgia refers to a sentimental longing for experiences shared with a romantic partner.
- New research suggests nostalgic memories about ex-partners may have a positive effect on one’s current relationship.
- The reason ex-nostalgia could benefit one’s current relationship may be that it promotes the perception of having grown and matured.
At first glance, it might seem nostalgic feelings about an ex-partner can have only a negative effect on your present relationships. But is this true? Could there be positive effects as well?
Yes, according to a recent paper by Ai et al., published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. This research is described below.
Investigating romantic nostalgia about ex-partners
In three studies, the authors tested whether reflecting on nostalgic memories of an ex would increase perceptions of quality of and approach motivation toward one’s current romantic relationship.
Note, approach motivation refers to a tendency to seek desirable outcomes. For example, doing things because they are fun and rewarding.
Avoidance motives, in contrast, are associated with preventing feared outcomes, like preventing getting rejected or hurt.
Previous research shows approach motives—compared to avoidance motivates—are associated with more favorable relationship outcomes, such as reduced anxiety, lower feelings of loneliness, improved well-being, and greater relationship satisfaction.
Nostalgia has been shown to improve approach motivation, which is why the authors hypothesized that memories of an ex may increase approach motivation toward one’s current relationship. This will be explained further later in the post.
Sample: 167 (110 women); median age of 31 years old (18-68 range).
Methods: Participants were randomly assigned to three conditions.
Depending on the condition, participants were instructed to think of a nostalgic event about their ex, any ex-related event, or a specific ordinary event (not concerning the ex).
Participants then completed a variety of relationship measures.
Results: Bringing to mind nostalgic memories of an ex lead to feeling better about one’s current relationship. Why? Possibly because the positive feelings experienced when reminiscing generalized to the current relationship.
Sample: 223 (143 women); median age of 28 years old (18-63 range).
Methods: To replicate previous findings, participants were once again randomly assigned to three conditions.
They then completed a number of measures, including current relationship quality and perceived self-growth (e.g., personal strength, appreciation for life, seeing new possibilities).
Results: Previous results were replicated. Furthermore, “reflecting on nostalgic memories about one’s ex-partner increased perception of self-growth and subsequently the perception of higher relationship quality.”
Sample: 181 (95 women); median age of 32 years old (18-79 range).
Methods: There were two conditions. Specifically, participants were instructed to read posts on a website where people shared nostalgic feelings regarding their ex or shared their plans for the day.
Subsequently, scales similar to those from earlier studies were completed.
Results: Study 3 replicated the previous findings. Furthermore, it found, “inducing nostalgic memories about an ex-partner led participants to report higher approach motivation in their current romantic relationship,” and the “positive effects of nostalgic memories on current relationship were mediated by perception of self-growth.”
Romantic nostalgia refers to a sentimental longing for experiences shared with a romantic partner.
New research suggests reflecting on nostalgic memories of an ex-partner may…
- increase the perceived quality of the current relationship.
- enhance approach motivation toward the current relationship.
So, how can we explain these counterintuitive findings? After all, one would expect nostalgic memories involving an ex to have a negative, not positive, effect on the present relationship.
Perhaps the expected negative effects occur only when reminiscences focus on one’s emotional attachment to an ex, such as thinking of one’s ex as an attractive alternative for meeting the needs unmet in the current romantic relationship.
It goes without saying that emotional or sexual desire for the ex-partner is maladaptive. Indeed, it prevents full investment in and commitment to one’s present relationship.
What if a past association serves instead as a model for romantic relationships? Then, it can have a positive effect, teaching one what to expect from romance or how to deal with problems that arise in intimate relationships.
For instance, the memory of watching a movie with their ex and then staying up and talking all night long may help the person feel more confident in their ability to create intimacy in their present relationship.
Moreover, nostalgic reminiscences may promote a sense of self-growth.
Specifically, nostalgia might facilitate the assimilation of good memories—memories that made one feel validated, valued, and competent in the past—into their present self-concept. As one research participant wrote, she got a “warm feeling” in her heart for her ex, a man who “so long ago saw my worth and loved me enough.”
Finally, another explanation is that bringing to mind nostalgic memories may positively affect the interpretation of past experiences (e.g., seeing a breakup as happening for a reason).
Reflecting on nostalgic memories of an ex-partner may promote a more positive perception of one’s current relationship: It facilitates seeing the past relationship as a meaningful stepping stone toward maturation and appreciating how much one has grown and matured.
However, note that ex-nostalgia is not guaranteed to make you feel better about the relationship you are in now.
Such an outcome is especially unlikely if you had a very recent or painful breakup because it will be more difficult to think of the good times with your ex.
Or if the nostalgia is motivated by the fact that your needs are not being met presently, and by emotional and sexual desire for your ex.
The research reviewed suggests thinking about the good times you had with an ex may be adaptive when it….
- serves as a reminder of your inner value and self-worth.
- makes you feel better about yourself.
- teaches you what to expect from a relationship.
- makes you feel more capable and competent as a romantic partner.
- improves your self-esteem and self-confidence.
- reminds you of the many ways you have matured.