Thinking About Your Ex Can Improve Your Current Relationship, New Study Claims

Don't beat yourself up if you reminisce about a former partner—it can actually be beneficial.

Bringing up an ex is generally a relationship no-no. For most, it's better to keep the past in the past and move forward with your current partner. But according to findings from a recent study, thinking about your ex might not be detrimental. In fact, it can even improve your relationship. Read on to find out what researchers found when studying old flames, and why you shouldn't feel too guilty about reminiscing.

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Previous studies have highlighted the negative impacts an ex can have on your relationship.

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When you hear mention of a partner's ex, it can spark some unpleasant feelings or even pangs of jealousy, and vice-versa when your ex is brought up. Researchers have looked into why exes are such a sore spot and how they create relationship rifts, even when they're no longer in the picture.

A 2012 study found that "increased longing" for recent ex-partners led to a decline in relationships over time, and that resolving feelings for your most recent ex can maximize the potential of a new relationship.

Direct contact with an ex makes things a bit more complicated, as a 2016 study concluded that communication with a former flame (under certain circumstances) can have harmful effects on a current partnership.

But a new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in October took a different look at former romantic partners and how they affect current relationships—focusing on "the potential positive influence."

Thinking about fond memories of an ex had surprising results.

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To determine how a past relationship might bolster a current connection, psychologists at the University of Kansas conducted three experiments, including a total of 167 volunteers, according to the Daily Mail. Study participants weren't asked to reach out to or speak with an ex, but they were instead instructed to reflect on a past relationship, focusing on "nostalgic memories."

Participants were prompted to conjure these memories after reading blog posts written about strangers' past relationships. Researchers then asked volunteers about how satisfied they were in their relationship, the love they felt towards their current partner, and how motivated they were to stay in the relationship.

Interestingly, reflecting on memories with an ex improved participants' feelings in all three areas. "Fond nostalgic memories about past relationships remind people of the positivity of romantic relationships," researchers wrote in the study, per the Daily Mail. "We found it led to an increase in the perceived quality of current partnerships."

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Participants were also asked to do some self-reflection.

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Who hasn't looked back and thought to themselves, "Wow, I can't believe I did that," or "I can't believe I dated that person"? We all grow and learn, and when you recognize this progress, it's only natural to feel more confident in your decisions. That's exactly why researchers from the present study also evaluated how people felt they'd changed since being with their last partner.

In the study, self-growth was identified as a "potential underlying mechanism" for the positive effects of nostalgic memories of an ex. Researchers investigated this by asking volunteers about how much they thought they'd grown after leaving their previous relationship. It turns out self-growth was related, as volunteers who felt more mature reported increased appreciation of their current partner and more motivation to maintain the relationship.

That being said, the study was not without its limitations, as reflecting on a breakup can be very difficult for some. "These memories can be triggered by an ex-lover's favourite song or movie," researchers wrote, per The Daily Mail. "But if the break-up of the previous relationship was too painful, people may resist recalling nostalgic memories."

Different forms of nostalgia can be helpful for relationships.

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This isn't the first time nostalgia has been identified as a way to improve relationship quality. In Jan. 2022, a study entitled "Romantic nostalgia as a resource for healthy relationships" was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Study authors wrote that nostalgia, in general, has psychological benefits, but there hadn't been many studies that looked into the romantic form.

Researchers defined romantic nostalgia as past experiences shared with a current partner—so it's a bit different than thinking about memories with an ex. Still, experts found that when people recalled past experiences with their partner, it was associated with "greater relationship commitment, satisfaction, and closeness."

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