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When Old Loves Haunt

Intrusive ghosts from the past.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Experiences from prior relationships will, in various ways, infiltrate those that follow. But new love has the best chance of flourishing when the reasons for past failures are successfully resolved beforehand.

Sadly, most lost relationships do not end positively, leaving remnants of thoughts and feelings that can negatively affect future partnerships. Before they are over, one or both partners have typically built up a long list of legitimate reasons to walk away, more often blaming the other for what has happened. And, it is also more likely that one partner opts out before the other is ready, leaving heartbreak in one and guilt in the other.

These unresolved sorrows too often prevent relationship-seekers from fully opening up to new love. They are like emotional “ghosts from the past” that continue to exist in the present. The partners who are still preoccupied with them cannot easily separate them from the relationship at hand.

Also, many relationships end with some of their positive interactions still intact. By the end of the relationship, the negative interactions have overshadowed those that kept the partners together, but they often diminish in memory over time. A regretful partner may then eulogize those good experiences, wondering if he or she should have tried harder to prevent the ending.

It is always better, of course, that the partners in a new relationship have rectified their past mistakes, and have learned the lessons they needed to prevent repeating them. Those who able to do that better know what they want to take into a new relationship and what to leave behind.

Though “ghosts from the past” can take on many forms, there are some that seem to cause the most problems. The thoughts and feelings that accompany them fall into a category I refer to as “grief regrets,” the emotional combination of responses that make people feel that they could have or should have done something that could have saved the relationship.

If relationship-seekers can identify their unresolved past relationship issues, they are more likely to leave them behind. It is only then that they can keep the past from defining and predicting the future.

There are some common ghosts from the past that are helpful to identify to use as a starting point. From that perspective, each partner can more easily identify those that are unique to their own relationships.

The 10 Most Common “Ghosts from the Past”

1. When Others Influenced the Decision to End the Relationship. Friends, families, well-intentioned spiritual guides, and even therapists, may prematurely advise a person to get out of a relationship. They often do this innocently because the partner who is struggling may be sending out self-destructive alarms but not sharing what is keeping him or her still attached.

When relationships are in trouble, it is all too likely that one or both partners will seek confidants who will take their side and might blindly follow their advice just to get away from the discomfort they are experiencing. The result is a decision that may have been different had that distressed person taken more time.

2. Guilt and Self-Doubt. Troubled relationships often bring out the worst in people. Too often, when things seem beyond repair, one or both partners will begin to behave in ways that drive the other away, just to end the misery. In that process, they stop liking who they have become as well.

When the dust settles and the relationship is over, it is all too common for many relationship partners to rethink how they should or could have acted differently, had they behaved as they could have at their best.

3. Losing Sight of the Positives. It is understandably hard for one or both partners to end a relationship that once was hopeful. Giving up once-positive and hopeful dreams is not easy for anyone, and often leaves one or both partner with self-doubts and regrets.

The accumulation of negatives may have buried the once-beautiful moments that were once there. But when time and space lessen the sting of disappointment, those positive moments often re-emerge. Many then wonder whether they’d still be together had they just tried harder to focus on the right things.

4. Burdening the Current Relationship with Misconceptions and Misunderstandings from the Past. It is far too easy for many people to project the failures and distresses of past relationships on to a current one, limiting its chances for success.

Not able to separate out unfinished business from the past from the legitimate issues of the present, many people cannot accurately resolve what they are facing in their new relationship.

Those biases keep them from accurately experiencing what is happening in their new relationships. If those differentiations are not resolved, they can doom the present and future of a potentially successful partnership.

5. Inauthenticity. If the partners in past relationships have been transparent, honest, and real with one another, they were more likely to have ended their relationship still respecting and caring for each other.

But, conversely, if they have projected their own faults on to the other, refused to look at their own accountability, or acted inauthentically, they are more likely to wonder later how those behaviors may have sabotaged the relationship.

6. Comparing and Contrasting. Many people leave relationships because they feel that there may be someone better out there for them. They believe that there might be a new partner who does not have the negative attributes of the past one and will have all the positives behaviors that the old partnership lacked.

Alas, after multiple tries, they find that no one compares to the person they left behind. They continuously beat themselves up for not “realizing what they had.”

7. Inability and Unwillingness to Work Through a Betrayal. Betrayals come in all shapes and sizes. From infidelity to hiding money, to keep secrets from the past, to withhold crucial information that good be a game-changer, they all create mistrust.

Trust is the core of every deepening friendship. Betrayals erode or destroy that bond. It is totally legitimate for a betrayed partner to wipe out everything good about the relationship to escape his or her pain.

But, too often, in the heat of the disappointment and sorrow, people flee before they assess what their relationship could be like post-trauma if they could have resolved the heartbreak together. They may later regret their premature flight and project that expectation of betrayal onto subsequent relationships.

8. Jealousy. When partners feel unfairly or unjustly abandoned, they often have a myriad of feelings from devastation to raging anger. If they feel cheated, they might want those past partners to suffer by never finding love again.

It is common to see the people who feel this way consumed with the need to know everything their past partners are doing, and want them to fail at a subsequent relationship so that they will regret ending the ones they had.

9. Holding on to Fantasies. In order to assuage the sorrows of lost love, many people will create the last relationship in ways it never existed.

For example, if the pain of a lost relationship lingers too long or hurts too much, they will remember it, in retrospect, as more important and wonderful than it actually was. Conversely, to justify their anger and disappointment, they might do the opposite and condemn the past relationship to ease their distress.

10. The Foreverness of Death. I’ve left this for last because it is, in so many ways, too profound to be included in the first nine, yet must be.

The loss of a loved one may take years to resolve, and sometimes never. It very much depends on the quality of the relationship, the unfinished connections within it, and the time the partners had been together.

Many people have told me that they cannot let go of a lost love enough to ever allow another in as deeply as they did before. They cannot imagine life without the lost, unfinished love, so continuously weave them into every new relationship.

Neil Simon was the master of the predictable eventual scene when a current partner finally explodes in frustration because of his or her always being second to that forever-present ghost. Statements similar to: “She’s gone. I’m here. I can’t compete and I don’t want to.” “You look at me as if I’ll never measure up or take his place. Am I doomed to stay in the background, while I watch you wish he was back?”, fill the dramatic moment when a grieving spouse finally realizes that his or her new love cannot compete in a rigged race.

When love ends, the people who once lived in its bliss, separate from one another, often forever. The result is often a combination of liberation and the grief of loss. If they are lucky, they will have fully resolved a past relationship before they begin a new one. In that wiser and more unencumbered state, they will be ready to commit fully to what that next adventure holds.


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