Coming to terms with past relationships

If the past can teach you anything, there is no better lesson plan than to search through the wreckage of your romantic past.

It seems fashionable nowadays to assume everything in your life is a mommy or a daddy issue. However, no one chooses his or her parents. Romantic partners, with few exceptions in the Western world, are choices based on your individual decision making process. Not only that, they are choices generally made, at the absolute earliest, somewhere around adolescence. This means that it is a fairly calculated decision using some level of reason, not pure infantile instinct. Therefore, when a person chooses a romantic partner of any level, there usually is some imprint that is left when that person is no longer there, for whatever reason.

The depth of the memory depends on how much the relationship affected you. It probably has nothing to do with how long you were with a person, either. Maybe the first girl you had a crush on haunts you more than thinking about your former wife of twenty years. Why this strange murkiness and unevenness exists is hard to explain, but some people just leave longer shadows than other when they are gone. It does no use to try to convince yourself intellectually that it is in the past or that the relationship doesn’t mean anything because it didn’t work out. If someone in your romantic past, whether forty years ago or forty days ago, is haunting you, perhaps you can use this “shadow” as a lesson plan for a better life today. If there are wounds, the relationship meant something, no matter how much you try to write it off as nothing.

The best way to come to terms with past relationships is to meet them head on. Burying things alive in a ruse to get on with your life will probably just increase the wreckage for your new partner, if and when he or she arrives. This does not necessarily mean go contact your ex and hash it out. It doesn’t even mean to contact him or her at all. There are certainly cases when this even would be inadvisable or dangerous. But running away from feelings does nothing to help your life today. Dealing with feelings head on is not some woo-woo New Agey thing where you balance your chakras and learn to see auras. You don’t have to contact an astrologer to see why Cancer doesn’t do well with Aries or whatever your situation is in that regard.

However, it is possible that by avoiding feelings that past lovers provoke, you may be missing out on living your life to the absolute fullest. Consider this: imagine that by shutting out the “room” of your former lover in your mind and heart, you are cutting off a part of yourself. Which means that today when you give of yourself, perform service, or enter in any new relationship, you are shortchanging all of the people involved. And now when those people go to interact with others, they will take a diminished experience of you into those encounters. If you could inspire more people to be compassionate and be their best, would you? If the answer is yes, then why not go to those forbidden rooms and deal with the past head on so you can be more whole for yourself and others?

I have to say that I was a skeptic when it came to dealing with old relationships. I met my husband when I was twenty, and thought the door to that chapter was long ago closed. It’s the past, I’ve moved on, I’m a happily married woman, I don’t want to be with any of them anyway: all true statements. Great evidence to plow forward into the great wide future that was now available to me with my life partner.

It was in editing my journal that I found myself changing my mind towards the idea of looking at the past. These were experiences that helped define me. Experiences which I called irrelevant because they were over. But this was a double-edged sword: by suppression, I just caused myself to react in strange ways I couldn’t explain. Perhaps shutting the door hadn’t been such a great idea, after all. Maybe it was time to open it once more.

For various reasons, my past in and of itself is a rather charged topic. And there was no good way of getting around the mess of former relationships if I was going to deal with the past at all. It was a strange territory to be roaming about in, and I really didn’t want to be there. I was a married woman, after all: why think about anyone at all from my romantic past? It felt ridiculous to even be going there. I couldn’t believe I was even thinking about it. But I left my bags packed in case I decided to embark upon this insane journey.

In reading certain books and talking to people including my spouse, I decided to go ahead and see what this internal journey was all about. Seeing I left the dating market at twenty, maybe past relationships were affecting my marriage and I wasn’t even aware of it, because they were right on the heel of meeting my husband. For me, I used books by Debbie Ford, Susan Piver, and Joel Osteen. Ford discusses how our shadow trips us up. Piver’s book The Wisdom of a Broken Heart says by softening to old romantic partners, we can open up to greater compassion for all people. Osteen discussed how lack of forgiveness of ourselves and others steals from the best person we could be today. All three of these authors made great sense to me, and perhaps their work could help you as well.

In the end, I discovered two past relationships had impacted me as a person. One made sense, the other did not. Meaning, the one was someone I’d been in love with and knew for a long time: the classic first love. The second one was a much briefer encounter, much harder to categorize as lover, friend, or whatever. Regardless, he was on the list as well. The duration didn’t really matter.

What both told me what kind of patterns I tend to create, and who it is that I am most likely to fall in love with, what kind of person that I am attracted to, the obvious common factor being myself. For me, the work strengthened my marriage because I saw myself more clearly in the relationship I chose for a lifetime. Not only that, it seemed to open myself emotionally. On some level, there was a debt that had been cancelled that I didn’t know was there; I became freer, and my voice stronger for it. I chose not to contact anyone, on the premise that I didn’t feel like complicating others’ lives when the issues had to do with me. But I feel that now if an encounter took place, I would be able to hold my own, own up to my side of the relationship’s demise, and treat the other person with the dignity he deserved.

I know I’ve gone on a bit about myself, but I just wanted to share my experience to let you know while that this subject of dealing with past relationships is a messy and inconvenient one, it may be worth your time to at least work out your emotions and issues on your own personal time. Your future or current partner will appreciate the lighter baggage you carry, and you will as well. And maybe as a bonus, you can use your experience to help others. It’s worth a shot, and the only thing you risk losing is an identity centered on fear and anger. You will gain freedom, and maybe you can see your former partner as a teacher, not an enemy. In a world beset by violence and war, it will only be beneficial to lay down the weapons of your inner conflict, and turn your anger into mercy.

(Originally published on on 11/30/10 under the same title)