What's The Idea Behind “If You Love Something, Set it Free?”

Updated August 25, 2023by Regain Editorial Team
”The more one tries to hold on to a relationship, the less likely that person will want to stay and work on the relationship. By allowing people to leave and follow a different path in life, sometimes that path will lead back to us. It can be scary but important to navigate freedom in relationships, and a licensed therapist can provide support.” - Aaron Dutil, LPC

Throughout your life, you may hear common sayings about love. One popular quote is "If you love something, set it free." This phrase has many variations in popular culture, but where did the notion of setting something that you love free come from? Further, what does it say about love and relationships? Like love, the meaning of this common phrase can be very personal and unique to person saying it, feeling it, or thinking it.  

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The Many Versions Of This Quote

Sometimes the quote “If you love something, set it free” is phrased differently, though the general meaning remains the same. For instance, there’s a famous 1980s song lyric by the singer Sting: “If you love somebody, set them free.” But even earlier, a similar but slightly longer quote was penned by early to mid-20th century writer Douglas Horton: “If you love something let it go free. If it doesn't come back, you never had it. If it comes back, love it forever.” A third similar quote by Richard Bach, who wrote some of the bestselling books of the 1970s, is “If you love somebody, set them free. If they return, they were always yours. If they don't, they never were.” Clearly, many people have explored this theme of letting go of a loved one, but what does it mean and how does it apply to relationships? How can it set you free to let go of someone that you love?

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What Is The Meaning Behind The Phrase “If You Love Something, Set it Free?”

When referring to relationships, a quote about setting someone or something free likely has a very personal meaning for those in the relationship. Like love and relationships, there’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for this quote. There are, though, some interpretations of what the phrase may mean.

It may refer to communicating to a partner that they’re free to leave the relationship because it might be in the best interest of one or both partners. It could be that one partner decides to break up so that the other person (or both partners) will be “free” of the relationship. Perhaps a partner senses that their significant other wants or needs to be free of a commitment. For instance, a person might not be their healthiest self in the relationship—or they might not bring out the best traits in their partner. In some cases, one partner might not feel they’re meeting the other’s needs or might not feel that their own needs are being met, so they may feel being free from the relationship is the right path to take to move forward. 

Perhaps the step of letting go of the relationship comes from having different ideas about commitment or readiness. The couple may have different goals or even logistical circumstances, like living or working in different geographic regions. If a loved one engages in unhealthy behaviors, such as substance misuse, a partner may decide breaking up is a healthy step. This quote could refer to being at a crossroads in a relationship, a time when a partner feels the need to decide that “freeing” their partner is the right thing to do, even if love is still present. 

Considering the idea of “setting someone free” can be an important topic. In a healthy relationship, partners still have the freedom to be themselves without controlling each other. They may agree to aspects of the relationship—such as dating exclusively or remaining faithful—but at the heart of the relationship, each person in a respectful relationship maintains their individuality while being part of the couple. A controlling relationship, however, may be based on an imbalance of power—a situation in which one partner dominates another and the other does not feel free. This can be a form of abuse in a relationship. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing or has experienced relationship abuse, please seek help. You can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to 88788 or use the live chat option online at TheHotline.org. TheHotline provides essential tools and support to help survivors of domestic abuse so they can live their lives free of abuse. 

“If They Return, Were They Always Yours?” 

What about the second part of the extended phrase? If a partner “comes back” to you after a breakup, is it true they were “always yours?” Was the relationship meant to be? Will it resume if the couple is “destined” to be together? The reasons why people reconcile or reunite after a breakup can be as unique as the couple. 

Reconciliation is quite common. Research shows that approximately 50% of couples get back together after breaking up. Further, splitting with a partner can be harder on the person who has initiated the breakup because they may continue to have lingering doubts about whether ending the relationship was the right thing to do. This doubt may be what prompts some couples to get back together. 

What about the other 50% of the couples—the ones who don’t reconcile? Does that mean that the partner was not “yours to begin with?” It may not be so simple. Partners can truly love each other, but perhaps they don’t reconcile for any number of personal reasons, some of which are common to breakups. For instance, they may not have the time to devote to a relationship; they may lack trust; they may have behaviors, opinions, or goals that aren’t compatible; or they may have different expectations or ideas about what the relationship should be. The reasons can be as personal as the individuals in the relationship are.

If a partner does “return”—and that motivate them to get back together—the success of the relationship may depend on several factors. Learning from the past may help the couple navigate the future. Picking up where they left off without making any changes might not lead to a different outcome the second time around. However, working together to grow and productively address what didn’t work in the past—and what both want from the present and the future—may result in a more positive relationship and a different outcome.

Letting Go Of A Relationship

Ending a relationship can be an emotional and challenging process, especially if the reasons why you love someone still linger in your heart and soul. When you still love a partner, letting go can come with a range of feelings. While the time after a breakup may be difficult, there are some helpful suggestions you can keep in mind when trying to move forward after splitting up with someone you love. Here’s some advice for coping with a breakup:

  1. Acknowledge the reality of the relationship. Sometimes love may not be enough for a healthy or sustainable relationship. Accepting the reality of what didn’t work in the relationship can help you recognize that though the breakup is hard, it may be what’s healthiest. 

  2. Give yourself credit for your strengths. Breaking up with someone is almost always an emotional decision but breaking up with someone you love may come with even more heartbreak. Knowing that you were strong enough to take the step to end what wasn’t working can be a sign of courage and self-awareness.

  3. Practice acceptance and gratitude. Your partner may have been very meaningful to you. Instead of trying to ignore those feelings or pondering the negative, you might try accepting what the love meant to you. You can try consciously and purposefully accepting what did and did not work in the relationship. You might also practice gratitude for the positive experiences of the relationship and how you grew from it.

  4. Consider what you learned from the relationship. For instance, you may have learned more about yourself and your needs, wants, and expectations from a relationship—as well as those of a partner. You may have learned about communication styles, which can be important in any relationship. This self-awareness might help you grow and move forward.

  5. Prioritize other relationships. Spending time with people you have a positive connection with can help you heal from a breakup. The uplifting emotional support friends or family give you can help you move through the post-breakup period. You might find talking to them about how you’re feeling helps. Alternatively, if you find yourself dwelling on the breakup, spending time with people you enjoy and giving yourself a break from talking about or thinking about the relationship might boost your mood. Laughter and fun can be healing.

  6. Spend time on yourself. When you’ve ended a relationship, you may feel like your identity as part of a couple is gone. Taking care of yourself and focusing on your interests or goals may help you move forward.

  7. Understand that it may take time to heal. Love is a strong emotion. It is not usually quick to fade, but feelings of heartbreak can mend with time. You might help yourself through this process by accepting the hurt or sadness, having patience, and reminding yourself that you won’t feel this way forever. Try to be compassionate with yourself and practice self-care. Love can’t be flipped off with a switch, but with acceptance and time, heartbreak may mend.

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Are You Deciding Whether To End Your Relationship?

Online Counseling With Regain

Letting go of a relationship with someone you love can be difficult. A licensed mental health professional can offer you support and helpful guidance regarding relationships, the emotions of ending them, and navigating life post-breakup. They can offer you tools to help you feel better, manage your feelings, develop your strengths, and have healthy, fulfilling relationships. At Regain, you can connect online with licensed mental health professionals who specialize in relationship counseling and individual therapy. They can offer you compassionate support regardless of what you’re going through. You can connect through video calls, phone calls, or in-app messaging according to your needs, allowing you to get care from anywhere at any time. 

The Efficacy Of Online Counseling 

Online counseling can be a viable resource for those experiencing problems in their relationship. One study assessed the efficacy of an online program for couples and individuals. Researchers found that this intervention was effective in improving relationship satisfaction and reducing distress. It also improved participants’ symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

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The Takeaway

Some people find comfort in the saying, “If you love something, set it free.” Many times, relationships carry a lot of pressure, and it can be difficult to make decisions that may be hurtful to you or another person. However, staying true to yourself and your values can be important to your health and happiness. Connecting with an online therapist may be helpful to individuals or couples who are processing relationship woes or unsure where to turn next. With the right support, tools, and healing, a satisfying, healthy relationship is possible.

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