There are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and making healthy choices in relationships. We all have a composite picture of the people who influenced us previously – their looks, personality, tone of voice, behavior, and so many other factors that help define them. It’s common for people to be influenced by these past relationships and be unaware of it.
For instance, you might pick a partner who is emotionally detached because your father was that way and that is what you know. Although you realize they cannot meet your needs – you may have a repetition compulsion – an unconscious tendency to want to fix the past, to recreate it, to make it better. Breaking this pattern takes insight and great courage.
When we get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past — the very things that we might want to avoid. I have seen too many relationships sabotaged or crumble because one or both partners are unaware that they bring a backlog of hurt, fears, and ambivalence from earlier relationships to present interactions.
1. You have unrealistic or rigid expectations of how others should treat you and so you are easily disappointed. Then when a partner treats you badly, your suspicions are confirmed. Yet you failed to set healthy boundaries from the beginning.
2. You struggle with intimacy and are either a pursuer who craves intense closeness or a distancer who can be remote and shut down when stressed.
3. You have negative beliefs about yourself and your ability to find long-lasting love. You tell yourself “I’m not good enough” or “There will never be anyone who is right for me.”
4. You are a people pleaser and don’t want to make waves so you avoid conflict. However, you end up feeling resentful and believe that people will reject you unless you make them happy and are in a good mood.
5. You are convinced that your relationship issues are because of your partners. Therefore, you spend too much time analyzing others rather than taking responsibility for your role in your problems.
Some people create a narrative for their life that focuses on suffering and self-blame. Caitlin explains, “It’s almost as if I’m addicted to pain. It’s as if I’m so familiar with that adrenalin rush that I get from being in a bad relationship, I don’t feel comfortable when Adam treats me right. But I’m working on that and I’m better able to stop myself from threatening to leave him when I feel afraid. Just because I’m triggered emotionally by things he says and does, this doesn’t mean things are going to end.”
In their breakthrough book Conscious Loving, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks write: “Conflict can be powerfully addictive. Some of us are conflict junkies, and that addiction lasts far longer than substance abuse addictions. We may be attached to the drama of fights, even if we protest mightily that we want serenity.”
Caitlin has become addicted to pain and feels uncomfortable when things are calm. However, she is motivated to change this unhealthy pattern and feels she deserves to have a healthy relationship.
The following steps will help you gain awareness of past hurt and achieve a happy relationship:
• Acknowledge the damage that was done (in the past) and shift to an impersonal perspective that’s focused on understanding and healing rather than blame.
• Find ways to repair past damage by writing a new narrative for your life — one that includes partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on building a committed relationship.
• Examine your expectations about intimate partnerships. You might be more focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is, ultimately leading to disappointment.
• Focus on the things you can control and work on being the best partner you can be. Accept that you can’t control the past but can exercise the power of choice today. Try to see things from your partner’s perspective. Take on a view that couples who work as a team are more likely to achieve lasting love!
In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson, explains that we all have raw spots (in our emotional skin) that are tender to the touch and deeply painful. Dr. Johnson explains: “A responsive partner helps us work through our painful feelings.” It is natural to feel exposed as we allow ourselves to fall in love and it takes determination to work through each other’s vulnerabilities and wounds.