Why Is it so Hard to Forget a Past Love?

September 25, 2019
It's impossible to forget past love entirely. It doesn't matter whether your relationship was very difficult or just a summer fling. We're all made up of stories, and love is like a permanent ink in your brain.

It can feel impossible to forget a past love, like trying to break a mountain in half. In the end, some memories are impervious to rust. Some stories and experiences were written in the ink of passion, on a kind of magic that leaves permanent marks in your mind.

No matter how much you may want to, it’s impossible to erase the love of the past because it has also helped you become who you are today.

Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran once wrote that your heart must break at some point in order to open up to the truth. It really may be true that love is something you have to learn to do. Broken hearts may really have an infinite wisdom in the cracked lines running through them.

In the end, there’s one thing that seems undeniable. No matter how much disappointment or joy you’ve experienced, your brain simply never forgets that it was once in love. It doesn’t matter how many recipes, suggestions, or sophisticated strategies people give you for erasing a beloved person from your mind. It won’t work.

You can’t just forget the things you’ve experienced. You simply have to accept the absence of that person and be okay with what happened (and what didn’t). This will also allow you to open yourself up to learning new lessons and having new experiences. 

“The rope has been torn; a knot. Can tie it again, but. It’s been torn. Perhaps we’ll meet again, but. You won’t find me. In the place where we parted ways.”

-Bertolt Brecht-

Forget a past love being symbolized by two people holding broken hearts.

It’s impossible for your brain to forget a past love

Moving past a relationship and putting a definitive end to it is often necessary. It’s for the good of you both. Both of you will be able to maintain your dignity and avoid hurting each other more than necessary.

As people often say, breaking up in time is often the best way for you to remain whole. But whether you both agree on the need for a break-up, or it’s just one person pushing for it, the suffering it causes can be immense.

There are studies that show that, in general, people take 6-18 months to get over a break-up. It’s impossible to forget that past love because you can’t control your own memories. But what you can do is regulate the emotional impact of them, and use the grief process to work through your feelings and accept this new reality.

We all know that love is an intense, and often chaotic or cluttered, emotional experience. No relationship is the same and, in the same way, some people have a much easier time getting over the pain of a break-up than others. Whatever your case may be, it’s unlikely you’ll truly forget a past love. That’s just not how your brain works. Here’s why.

Emotional memory and somatic markers

Human beings are essentially emotional creatures that once learned to use logic and reason. Our emotions are like the puzzle pieces we need to connect with one another. It’s thanks to them that we’re able to establish bonds, care for each other, spot risks, and seek our own well-being.

  • All that explains just why love is so important to our brains. It’s the comfy fabric that makes you feel safe and secure in a romantic relationship. Loving and being loved can bring you a sense of calm and reduce stress and fear. That’s why things such as betrayal, disappointment, or an unexpected or unwanted breakup can be so painful.
  • You also have to consider emotional memory. When you have a bond like this with someone, your brain creates lots of somatic markers. These are experiences your brain associates with intense emotional things such as kisses, caresses, hugs, scents, conversations, intimate moments, etc. It all leaves an imprint of wellness, happiness, hope, and pleasure.
  • These emotional somatic markers are created in the form of durable neural connections. They’ll simply always be there. This is why getting a quick whiff of a particular scent or seeing a place can instantly take you back. But not just to your memories, it can also take you back to the feelings you felt back then.
A couple standing together by train tracks.

Some past loves represent a part of you and your story

There’s a very clear reason why it’s impossible to forget a past love. After all, if you could erase it from your memory, you’d basically be erasing a part of yourself. As humans, we’re made of more than just flesh and bone. Our stories are a huge part of us too.

This is why you’ll find the person you were at the time so linked to your memories of that past love. It’s a younger, more bright-eyed version of yourself, lost in passion for another person. Your brain would never, ever want to forget that past self of yours.

Doing that would be like taking a backward step in terms of personal growth. Everything you’ve seen, felt, and suffered has shaped who you are today. Forgetting any of that would be like removing an entire chapter from your life story.

For better or worse, that’s who you are. But the best part of all is that it’s not over. You always have the opportunity to write better stories for yourself. At the end of the day, love is always worth the effort and all the joy it can bring you.

  • Galena K. Rhoades, et al, Breaking Up is Hard to do: The Impact of Unmarried Relationship Dissolution on Mental Health and Life Satisfaction (2011) Jun; 25(3): 366–374, Journal of Family Psychology.
  • Lewandowski, G. (2009). Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 21-31.