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Why Are Reality TV Shows So Obsessed With Romanticising Our Exes?

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

It has been years since you had a good date. Actually, you’re on one now, eyes darting at the clock as the minute-hand drags to the time you’ve deemed it socially acceptable to flee a stranger after the obligatory two pints. It’s a bonafide drought. Non-starter after non-starter. The guy you met at a party who asked you out and then talked with intense enthusiasm about how he usually only dates influencers but made an exception for you? Nope. The guy from Hinge whose nose started bleeding profusely five minutes after your first introduction? Yeah… no. You have been through the bloody wringer when it comes to love. So who can blame you for trying something different, say, a reality TV show where a group of experts match you up with a potential suitor. You stand in front of a mysterious portal (gotta love the theatrics), your romantic hopes clenched in your sweaty fists – and? Your ex steps out. It’s the premise of Prime Video’s new reality series named – tellingly – The One That Got Away.  

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Self-dubbed a 'radical social experiment', the episodes see six 20-something singletons of various occupations – bloggers, lawyers, Twitch streamers – who, will, over the course of several weeks, be met with various people from their past. OK, admittedly, it’s not just exes – it’s… exes of their best mates, someone they friend-zoned way back from uni, one woman they once drunkenly sloppy kissed in a bar, even a rando from Instagram. A ripe bunch. They all spring forth out of a bizarre set-up that wouldn’t look amiss in the Playboy mansion grotto (with an excess of horny purple lighting and dry ice) and move into the house with the singles to make a play for their hearts. 

In the opening moments of the first episode, we hear emotional voiceovers from the contestants: “There are times where I feel like I’ve met people and it was just wrong time, wrong place”; “what if I’ve already met the love of my life and just didn’t know it?”; “you always think about the ‘what ifs’.” It's a show hell-bent on romanticising people from our past; even the name The One That Got Away has a saccharine sub-text: 'Hey, maybe some rare gem from eons ago escaped your grasp and all future lovers will now pale in comparison.'

And this isn’t the first show to exploit the messiness of bygone relationships as entertainment. There’s BBC Three’s brutal format, Eating With My Ex, where former couples meet up to hash out old confrontations; MTV’s raunchier Ex On The Beach, where reality TV stars are disturbed by their exes in paradise; even the last two cycles of Love Island have introduced exes of contestants, no doubt to stir the pot. And there’s no doubt it is entertaining. We’ve all experienced friends cackling with glee in the background while you make small talk with an old flame after bumping into them in your local pub garden. The sheer awkwardness makes for compelling TV, where you can relish in someone else’s cringe as a third-party observer from the comfort of your own sofa.

“Nostalgia has psychological benefits, reminding us, with a touch of generosity, of joyous moments,” explains Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of forthcoming book What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of our Deepest Desires. “It can also be a defence from the vulnerability of the present — we are pointing to something out of reach and irretrievable and insisting that it was as we remember." But we can end up giving more of ourselves to the past than what is sensible.

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There’s immense comfort in familiarity, and even our memories keep us company. Dating can be brutal and disappointing, and when we’re dispirited, new and unfamiliar experiences seem daunting and unappealing.
Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author

Early pandemic, in the midst of sexless lockdowns, social distancing and fewer opportunities for fresh connections, it was reported that around 1 in 5 people texted an ex. We even saw the outrageously nostalgic recoupling of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, 17 years after they split, with the former now wearing a rock the size of a small village on her engagement finger. "Maybe I should get back with my ex," we nervously chuckled with friends, seriously-not-so-seriously. Even now, as we slowly reenter some semblance of normality, there is something undoubtedly comforting about looking back.

“When we feel out of sorts, stuck, bored, disappointed by choices and circumstances, we turn to our past, as though we might retrace our steps and see where we lost our way,” agrees Weber. “There’s immense comfort in familiarity, and even our memories keep us company. Dating can be brutal and disappointing, and when we’re dispirited, new and unfamiliar experiences seem daunting and unappealing. We’d rather cling to fantasies than face real life; we think real life is too unbearable so we secretly wait for miracles instead.” 

In The One That Got Away, one contestant, without a hint of irony, prefaces her first encounter with the portal by telling the viewer that her past relationships were toxic because she always put them before herself. Um, did we hear that right? The past was toxic. So surely that's one place you wouldn't revert to for a potential partner? Later she readies herself eagerly, excited to meet whatever old crush will step out. Another contestant broke up her years-long relationship with her partner because he still lived at home with his parents. When he comes through the portal to ask her to “dig deep down and see if [she’ll] give [him] another shot”, her eyes glitter at the grand gesture, rather than taking into consideration that nothing has changed and they will still come up against the same speed bumps. There’s no doubt that this mentality of romanticising the past can lead to unhealthy behaviour that either involves forgiving people for previous toxicity or incompatibility, all for the sake of finding ‘your person’.

“Looking back can be meaningful and deeply helpful, but we can also get stuck,” adds Weber. “When this happens, we can hold onto relentless hope in a way that sets us up for repeated problems. We can sacrifice our well-being for the fantasy of some unrealised potential. We get drawn in, believing that someone who hurt us will make things better, that we will personally turn a story of tragedy into a triumph. We love redemption stories. Some of us love redemption stories so much, we’ll embroider our sense of other people. We struggle to accept our own disappointment.” 

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One instance where The One That Got Away does undoubtedly shine is with New Yorker and gay travel blogger Jeff, who didn’t come out until the age of 21. He struggled to feel accepted right up to that point, after which he found a new lease of life, gained confidence and embraced his authentic self. During the course of the show, he not only reconnects with an individual he went to school with (during the time he was still hiding his sexuality and expressed feeling much internal shame), but also another individual who was instrumental in supporting him when he came out. There are beautiful and emotional moments here, which show the power of reflection to give you an indication of how far you’ve come, or give you the ability to re-experience a painful period with renewed joy, or foster a bond that you previously had no emotional capacity for before. There is a huge difference between this, and settling for fear of loneliness, or letting the passage of time give you rose-tinted glasses.

My opinion? Your ex is is your ex for a reason; let's move on, guys. New is always better.  

Weber adds: “I think we ruminate and fixate and struggle to let go because we are terrified of not mattering. We are meaning-making creatures and so we look for treasure in our personal histories. And what we long for even more is to feel that we are the treasure. We’re on a quest for significance.”

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