'If You Love Something, Set It Free': Is There Truth to This Quote?

And will return to you?

couple not happy

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When looking for perspective, we often rely on quotes as a source of wisdom and meaning-making.

The full proverb, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be,” is a reminder to let go and trust in a bigger plan. It’s about surrendering something beloved in the hopes that fate will intervene and bring it back—if it’s truly meant to be ours. 

The quote is ubiquitously known, but the same can’t be said for its source. The quote has been repeated throughout history and remains a popular theme in philosophy, literature, and media today. 

But how true is this quote? Read ahead to learn when to let someone go, if that person will return, and how to begin letting someone go.

Is It True That If You Love Something, You Should Let It Go? 

Licensed clinical social worker Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW shares that letting go can be empowering for both parties to make their own decisions, especially about whether they want to continue being in a relationship.

“Healthy relationships are built on trust, communication, and respecting each other's ability to make choices. If you prevent someone from leaving, you aren't respecting their ability to make their own decisions,” they say. “When you keep someone from leaving, your relationship is unhealthy, whether they leave or not.”

Maybe it’s a romantic situation with a partner where it's not working due to outside circumstances or a work situation that we’ve outgrown. Letting go is ultimately setting yourself free; free from expectations, illusions, and the situation itself to anchor yourself back in the present moment. 

As Shashoua affirms, letting go is really giving freedom to something we love and hoping they choose to be in the relationship instead of us forcing the decision. Real love is loving the person enough to unconditionally want the best for them, even if we aren’t the partner that gets to give it to them. 

Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW

When you keep someone from leaving, your relationship is unhealthy, whether they leave or not.

— Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW

Why People Have a Hard Time Letting Go

All easier said than done. Decades of research have found that love and lust play a significant role in our survival, reproduction, social functioning, and overall well-being, so it makes sense that once we find love or happiness in a particular situation, we want it to stay.

Love Creates Attachment

Love is an intricate neurobiological phenomenon emerging from a suite of behavioral and neurochemical subsystems. At its core, the sensation of love is a dopamine rush deeply intertwined with the pleasure and reward activities within the brain’s structure.

The feeling of attachment activates the neural pathways and electrifies the pleasure center to flood the body with the bliss hormone, oxytocin, which facilitates bonding, joy, and comfort.

Once we experience a positive stimulus, the brain wants more and will adjust our behavior in search of that desirable hit of feel-good chemicals. 

Even if we want to let go to grow and move on intellectually, the physical body can still resist through a series of addiction-like behaviors. The brain craves the relationship like a drug. Plus, emotional pain shares the same neural pathways as physical pain.

As a result, the process of letting go can worsen executive functioning, cause a general feeling of being unwell, and create cognitive disturbances in the executive domain of the brain, which is a common root of depression.

Why Do They Say If You Love Something, Let It Go? 

We’re taught to fight for the people and things we love. Once we find something good, we’re supposed to hold on as tightly as we can. 

Yet this quote poses a philosophical conundrum because love cannot be owned, possessed, and taken. Unconditional true love can only be given freely. The relationship evolves into a mutual effort that all parties have to consensually opt into for the relationship to thrive.

The allegiance of love is not a blanket promise of forever like fairy tales have promised. Love is a mutual effort that both partners consensually commit to every day. 

“The moment that you feel that the relationship is no longer adding to your happiness, or you no longer think it is meeting your needs, you should think about letting it go,” licensed therapist, Racine R. Henry, LCSW says. “It may be one incident that pushes you in that direction or an accumulation of things. Whatever makes you wonder, ‘Is this the right person for me?’ is worth spending time thinking about it.”

Racine R. Henry, LCSW

You can love someone and also know that being in a relationship with that person is not what is best for you.

— Racine R. Henry, LCSW

To that point, love requires respect, trust, comfort, and safety for true vulnerability and support to blossom. If the relationship is unhealthy and unproductive, Henry points out that sometimes it’s healthier to love from a distance. “You can love someone and also know that being in a relationship with that person is not what is best for you,” she says.

Of course, if you are feeling dissatisfaction with an aspect of your relationship, that doesn't mean you necessarily need to end it. You should feel empowered to advocate for and communicate your needs to your partner. Many people struggle with these difficult conversations, are conflict averse, and don't provide their partners the opportunity to meet their needs because they do not ask for them to be met in a way their partner could be receptive. Having these conversations can be a critical step in maintaining healthy relationships.

Does Letting Go Make Them Come Back?

“There are a lot of different meanings to let go,”  Shashoua says. “While we may not let go of our feelings, we can choose behaviors that let the other person go. We can continue caring about a person, even if it is best that we cease spending time with them.”

Sometimes, we may end the relationship and secretly hope they’ll return. We may wish destiny would step in and bring them back, which may absolutely happen with time. It’s normal to harbor that wish, but if it’s actively inhibiting one’s life and limiting growth, it’s time to re-evaluate the level of attachment. 

To lean in, the process requires relinquishing all expectations and conditions, including moving on. “Letting go is freeing for everyone involved. We don't have to assume control of the future of the relationship, allowing us to focus on our own needs,” Shashoua says. 

“You can't control whether someone returns, but it's better to be alone than with someone who wouldn't be with you if they had a choice,” they advise. 

Your Attachment Style Can Affect Your Ability to Let Someone Go

Although we can’t control people and circumstances, we can control how we carry on and move forward. Part of this comes down to attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment: Research from a 2013 journal found that securely-attached individuals fare better with relationship breakups because they meet the event with acceptance, resilience, emotional regulation, and healthy coping strategies.
  • Anxious attachment: On the other side of the spectrum, anxiously attached individuals may experience continued attachment to the lost partner, chronic mourning, rumination, and a loss of identity.
  • Avoidant attachment: Avoidant-attached individuals were shown to experience an external absence of grief but potentially move towards self-blame, drugs, and alcohol as an outlet for their emotions. 

How Do You Know You Have to Let Go Of Someone You Love? 

It'll be time to let go of someone you love when it's clear that there's no chance of reconciliation after you've exhausted attempts to communicate with your partner about your needs and found them unreceptive or unresponsive.

It may also be time to let go when you realize that thoughts of them are no longer serving you or your time with them is more negative than positive.

You might also realize that you're simply unhappy. Relationships are meant to add value to your life; however, if your relationship is actually depleting you and detracting value from your life, it's a good time to think about letting go.

Be Patient With Yourself

“You won't be over it as soon as you may like, but with time, patience, and effort, you can begin to heal, Henry says. “Think about telling those around you that you don't want updates on your ex or that you want their help limiting how much you lament about the breakup if you think that will help.”

Shashoua emphasizes the importance of talking to a friend or a therapist about feelings to feel the emotions and emotionally move on. Shashoua notes that it may feel powerful to mark the end with a ritual, such as writing, burning a letter, praying, and lighting a candle.

“Letting go of our feelings is a gradual process. [But] we will notice less heartache or fewer thoughts about our former partner over time,” Shashoua says. 

“If you love something, set it free” is an exercise of trust. The act of surrender can be terrifying because it requires a leap into the unknown, Trust yourself and know what is meant to be, will be.

How Do You Emotionally Let Go Of Someone? 

The quote suggests love is really an ultimate expression of faith and free will. “If you love something, set it free” breaks the mirage of control by reminding us we have no jurisdiction over the ebbs and flows of life. 

When the relationship is experiencing resistance in some way, the experience prompts us to reassess the situation for what’s best instead of defaulting to memories or plans. Sometimes that means leaving and letting go. 

Letting Go Is a Process

“Emotionally letting go is a process, and the pain of it may make you think that staying would have been the better choice. Once you make the decision to walk away, remind yourself of those reasons as often as possible to maintain your motivation to heal. Start slowly and continually give yourself some grace,” Henry advises. 

She recommends relying on friends, tapping into your emotions, and reaching out to a therapist trained in facilitating change to help you through. “Letting go of a relationship that has run its course can give both of you the chance to reevaluate, heal from past hurt, and grow into people who may be a better fit for each other.”

Henry adds staying in a hopeless relationship will get you nowhere but trapped in the same unhealthy cycle.

Letting go creates the possibility of maturing into people who may find each other again later on. Or finding something better and different in positive ways that suits your life then.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen is a freelance mental health and sexuality writer. Her writing explores themes around mental well-being, culture, psychology, trauma, and human intimacy.