You're In A New Relationship, But Thinking About Your Ex. Here's What It Means.

You’re dating someone new — who’s great, by the way — but thoughts of your ex keep popping up. Try as you might to move on, memories of this person continue to resurface — and you’re wondering what it means.

If this sounds familiar, take heart in knowing that thinking about an ex, even while you’re in another relationship, is a pretty universal experience.

“Each relationship impacts us in both big and small ways, and we carry those changes with us as we move forward in life and relationships,” therapist Nicole Saundersowner of Therapy Charlotte in North Carolina, told HuffPost. “It’s also very normal for our present experiences to trigger memories of the past. For example, if your current partner loves breakfast in bed and that was a ritual you had with your ex, those memories are naturally going to resurface.” 

Plus, an ex is a person who was, or is, important to you. So it’s understandable that they’d still be on your mind.

“It’s not uncommon to think about people we care about,” Toronto-based relationship expert and sexologist Jess O’Reilly, host of the “Sex With Dr. Jess” podcast, told HuffPost. “And caring doesn’t necessarily end when a relationship ends, evolves or shifts to a new format.” 

Not to mention, we live in a world where it’s easier than ever to keep digital tabs on an ex, from watching their Instagram stories to seeing their Venmo charges,“so it’s no surprise that you may find yourself thinking about them or even missing them,” said O’Reilly.

Due to a cognitive bias called
Due to a cognitive bias called "rosy retrospection," we tend to recall past relationships in a more favorable light than we experienced them at that time. The Good Brigade via Getty Images

If you find yourself fondly reminiscing about a former partner, you might be engaging in what psychologists call “rosy retrospection.” Another term for this is “euphoric recall.” It’s a type of cognitive bias in which we tend to recall the past in a more favorable light than we actually experienced it at the time.

“This distortion can negatively affect your experience of the present and skew expectations for the future,” O’Reilly said. “You may even find that these memories become more positive over time. And, of course, it may also leave you pining for an idealized version of your ex.”

Many folks believe you can’t be truly happy in a new relationship unless you’ve totally let go of the last one, said Savannah, Georgia, therapist Juan Olmedo of the Avanza Therapy Practice. But in reality, things often aren’t so cut and dry.

“Not every relationship ending is tidy and resolved. We often start something new while working out some leftover ‘stuff,’” he told HuffPost. “I prefer to ask: What am I thinking about in particular: an ex-partner or the way things ended?”

If you’re thinking a lot about a former partner, it may mean you still have some lingering feelings for them. But reflect on what, in particular, you’re missing, Olmedo advised.

“Are you missing that part of the relationship or getting that from the ex?” he said. “It’s important to take some time to clarify what the nature of the feelings are and whether you can work through them on your own.”

If you find you’re more hung up on the way things ended, you may just need more time to process the relationship or its dissolution, O’Reilly said.

And if you’re thinking about your ex frequently but you have no desire to get back together, “the memories are likely symbolic and reflect things you’ve learned about yourself,” said Saunders. 

“These memories might highlight aspects of a relationship that you need or don’t need, which can be very useful in deepening your self-awareness,” she added.

How To Know When These Thoughts Have Become An Issue

"Getting over a breakup isn’t a perfectly linear process,” O'Reilly said. <span class="copyright">Jamie Grill via Getty Images</span>
"Getting over a breakup isn’t a perfectly linear process,” O'Reilly said. Jamie Grill via Getty Images

O’Reilly summed it up this way: Thinking about your ex a lot is really only a problem if it’s a problem for you.

“There is no barometer of what’s normal when it comes to what we think about or how we regard an ex,” she said. “For some people, exes are a big part of our lives even after a breakup. This may be a matter of logistics — e.g., perhaps you’re co-parents or have shared financial or business interests — or preference — you may share fondness and friendship even if you no longer want to be in a romantic relationship.”

That said, there are some signs that might indicate your thoughts have veered into potentially problematic territory. For one, it’s worth paying attention to whether thoughts of your ex come and go or if they tend to linger. If they start taking up “most of your mental energy and focus,” then things are likely out of balance, Olmedo said.

Take note of how frequent and intense the urge to reach out to your ex is, he added. And if you two set a boundary about staying in contact post-breakup, have you been respecting that? Constantly checking their social media to see what they’re up to is another sign something might be amiss.

Consider, too, whether thoughts of your ex are interfering with your ability to be “present and available” in the new relationship, Olmedo added.

If you’re longing to actually get back together with an ex when you know that’s not an option, you may need to figure out ways to work on moving forward, O’Reilly said.

“But getting over a breakup isn’t a perfectly linear process,” she said. “There is no universal test to determine if you’re still hung up on them.”

How To Deal With Frequent Thoughts About Your Ex

Trying to get over an ex by just ignoring your feelings is not the way to go — and can even backfire.

“A new partner may want you to stop thinking about an ex, but it’s unfair and unrealistic for anyone to ask you to control your thoughts,” O’Reilly said. “In fact, the more you try to banish a thought, the more likely it is to reoccur.”

Allow yourself time and space to grieve the loss of the relationship if you need to.

“It’s OK to feel a range of fluctuating emotions,” O’Reilly said. “You might relish in feeling free and independent one day and then be burdened by a sense of grief the following day. It’s normal to experience feelings of grief, sadness, loss, fear, anger, confusion, excitement, uncertainty, joy, regret, etc. You don’t have to analyze, explain or understand every feeling.”

If you find yourself idealizing your ex, you’d probably benefit from looking at them and the relationship through a more objective lens.

“Why did you break up?” O’Reilly said. “What didn’t work out? You don’t need to dwell on the negative, but simply reframe idealizations into more realistic thoughts.” 

Caring doesn’t necessarily end when a relationship ends, evolves or shifts to a new format.Jess O'Reilly, relationship expert and podcast host

It may also be helpful to reassess your social media habits as they relate to this person. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to unfollow or block them, “but you might mute their content for a period of time or set limits on how often you engage  — especially if you find yourself scrolling like a detective,” O’Reilly said.

And remember there’s no set amount of time it takes to work through the dissolution of a relationship or heal from a hard breakup, Olmedo said. But consider whether you are emotionally available enough for a relationship at this time and “be up front about that with someone new,” he said.

“Take some time to talk about things with friends who can be good listeners — the ‘sounding board’ type, instead of the problem-solvers who want to focus on a new person,” Olmedo said. 

And remember: Thinking about an ex isn’t usually problematic, it’s human. “Go easy on yourself,” O’Reilly said. “They will cross your mind. It’s normal.”