How can I learn to stop letting my past relationship influence how I behave in my current one?
February 27, 2009 8:02 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to stop letting my past relationship influence how I behave in my current one?

For the past several months I have been in a relationship with a very loving, trustworthy, honest, and amazing guy. He has been nothing but affectionate, considerate, and understanding. And though this is only his first real relationship, and my second, we have openly expressed that this is a relationship we both see going "somewhere."

The problem is, I am struggling to let go of the pain of my first relationship. To say I have trust issues is an understatement. Granted, that relationship ended more than four years ago, and I have long since finished grieving for the loss of my ex. But what remains with me, however, is the neurotic, complexed, and insecure voice in the back of my mind that reminds me not to fall too hard (which I fear, has already happened), to protect myself, to brace myself for "inevitable" rejection, pain, and suffering. I am so so scared. Rightly so, I believe, as it was the end of my first relationship that sent me spiraling down into deep heartache for almost two years.

What makes me saddest, or angriest, maybe both, is the fact that I don't feel that I gained anything worthwhile from my first relationship. Sure, it was my first love, and it did have its silly, naive, and magical moments of perfection, but in the end, all I have is a box of his stuff, a pile of old love letters, and too many regrets. Regret for taking the relationship so seriously, taking its end so hard, for getting involved in the first place.

And so I fear that if this relationship ends (this is the most happiness I have experienced in such a long time), I will break. I don't think that I am unstable, but I am very sensitive to all forms of criticism and rejection. I'm also afraid that I am sabotaging my current relationship, with my suspicions and insecurities.

Perhaps I am not giving myself enough credit, maybe I'm stronger than I think. Older and wiser, at least. I hope.

Thank you very very much, hive mind, for any advice, anecdotes, and opinions.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean to be glib or dismissive, but ... it sounds like things are basically going fine and you really have no problem. You don't mention anything specifically bad that's happened in your current relationship aside from residual thoughts of the previous one, which is totally fine and normal.

You're in a good relationship. It might work out, or it might not work out, but in the meantime, enjoy it.

One more thing:

What makes me saddest, or angriest, maybe both, is the fact that I don't feel that I gained anything worthwhile from my first relationship.

That is not worth spending time worrying about. You don't need to "gain" something of some particular "worth" from a past relationship. I'll bet you gained plenty from the relationship, but there's no need to try to specifically identify and catalogue those gains.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:24 AM on February 27, 2009

What do you wish you had gained from your first relationship? Kids? Chlamydia? Bruises? The memories you have sound like what most people take with them when relationships end.

If you're really concerned that you have mental issues such that you're that close to a breakdown, see a therapist. But you might find it helpful to just believe that that a functional and fulfilling relationship is not doomed to fail and push you over the edge. I read Learned Optimism recently and think it makes a pretty good case that happiness is helped along by not expecting to fail and reacting optimistically when you do (which everyone occasionally does).
posted by substars at 8:37 AM on February 27, 2009

Its so hard to do, but you need to separate your thinking about what happened in the past - relationship #1 - from what is happening to you now. When you look back on relationship #1, remind yourself its over, and whatever happened doesn't influence choices you make today.

As a grizzled veteran of many a failed relationship, it seems to me that relationships start and end for myriad reasons, and every relationship I have been in (except for a couple car wrecks) will have good, bad, and learning elements to it. It doesn't seem to serve anyone to "protect" yourself or feelings; you want your feelings to be true to the moment.

It sounds like your current guy is cool - enjoy it then, and let it go the way it goes.
posted by RajahKing at 8:38 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my mind and experience, "falling too hard" is forgetting that you are an individual with your own personality (good and bad parts), and pinning your whole identity on being with the other person, then feeling like there's something missing when that person's gone. Maybe you did that in the last relationship(?)... but in this relationship you can take some time to examine what it is about your identity that may be enhanced by your SO, but will still remain *if* the current relationship ends.
posted by hellogoodbye at 8:41 AM on February 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

It's okay to be a little protective of your heart, as long as it doesn't lead to you sabotaging your new relationship. Eventually, if it's a strong and good new relationship, those fearful feelings will melt away and you'll be able to more fully and deeply experience the scary and wonderful parts of the new romance. It might take a year or so. Being honest with your new SO about why you might not be as emotionally intimate or codependent as he might like right away will probably help him be patient with your process.

I think it's a natural thing people go through, and I think as long as you're doing your best to be brave in your love life, and taking it a little further every day, you don't have to jump that far outside your emotional comfort zone after just a couple months with someone new. Just show him (and yourself) that you're making progress, one step at a time.
posted by np312 at 8:49 AM on February 27, 2009

Wow: I could have written this. Well, not this exactly, and it wasn't a relationship but a social group on the internet ... it's actually rather stupid now, looking back on it ... but the effect is similar, a lot of heartache which affected everything from that point on.

I'm not saying it's the same thing at all, but looking back, I've realised that the memory of how that hurt - that feeling of suddenly losing an entire group of friends, a social circle and a support network in the space of a couple of days - is something that's coloured my relationships and friendships ever since. Friends leave, groups blow up, so always be prepared to lose them. Etc. It sucked, and it hurt, and I've never forgotten. It's coloured every relationship I've had since then, friendship or otherwise.

I think it's natural to want to protect yourself. To an extent I think it's even healthy; you don't want to overinvest emotionally and then end up facedown in the dirt. But ... I also think there's a point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I've certainly left social groups and let friendships fizzle since then, always with a minimum of pain and regret, but I wonder how many great friendships I could have had if I had been willing to trust them more and work at it, rather than writing them off as "oh well, would have happened eventually".

I don't know how to stop doing it, though. Trusting people more is easier said than done.

So I don't have any answers for you. But I wish you luck. It sounds like you have the opportunity to be happy, really happy, if you can figure it out.
posted by Xany at 8:58 AM on February 27, 2009

I think you could benefit greatly by talking with a therapist.
posted by Meagan at 9:00 AM on February 27, 2009

Very cathartic, symbolic and helpful: get rid of the box of the ex's stuff and burn the letters.

Don't get all melodramatic; if the box of stuff has useful things, donate it to Goodwill and walk away. If it has personal belongings like toothbrushes & mix cds, aim for the garbage. Don't spend too much time sorting, just get rid of the stuff somehow. As for the letters, burning paper can be done discreetly in your bathtub if necessary, sent down the incinerator chute in your apartment building, etc. If you have absolutely no way of burning the letters, compost them, or put them in a public recycling container.

It's been four years and you've said you didn't gain anything long-term positive from the experience. It's time to let go of the ghosts of the physical reminders. This is not the most important step you'll take in this journey, but it's a super, tangible, get-it-done-wipe-hands-move-on milestone. You'll feel great afterward.

Then: therapy, or get some books and walk yourself through the process of moving on.

Important: don't talk about this stuff with your current bf. Not helpful, not kind to him, just causes jealousy and/or unhealthy "helping you through it" behaviours that won't serve your relationship in the long term. Take a deep breath, hike your pants, and get going. And do it without involving your current guy.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 9:03 AM on February 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

This is kind of basic life stuff, frankly. If we are relatively shielded in our childhoods from the worst griefs in life I think that most of us have buried somewhere in the backs of our minds that risk is a sort of test, and if we pass it by being brave, we get our reward, and so on, happily ever after.

Well, it's not. Risk is a true and dreadful bargain and the consequences are very real. If you want a guarantee that you won't be hurt just as badly or worse than you have been, well, you can't have it. When you give someone your heart you give them your heart to break. I have been with the same person for over a dozen years, married for seven, and my heart is still hers to break. Maybe more so than ever. There aren't any guarantees.

Except this one: you can do everything in your life to avoid risk, you can turn your back on exposing yourself to heartache and suffering. You can live a half life of fear and die anyway and lose everything there is in this world, which is what happens to absolutely everyone.

You are in fact stronger than you think because you got past your grief and made yourself open to love again. At some point you will get to the point where you realize that the real experiences in your first love are not invalid or pointless because of the way it turned out. The love is real, the joy is real, the loss is real, the grief is real. That's the whole package of life. Living it well for those of us cursed with the disease of introspection involves among other things learning to put aside the contemplation of terrible outcomes so that we don't waste the sweet moments of life borrowing suffering from the uncertain future. Here is your mantra: that isn't happening now, that isn't what's real, here and now, that's only thoughts. Be here now.
posted by nanojath at 9:03 AM on February 27, 2009 [16 favorites]

Important: don't talk about this stuff with your current bf.

I have to very respectfully disagree with that. Don't necessarily dump everything on him, but a little openness about things you struggle with could help you both.
posted by kingbenny at 9:15 AM on February 27, 2009

From my experience, what you're experiencing is rather common and is due to the fact that you haven't been with your new guy long enough to rewire your brain from your past relationship. A lot of your thinking, as expressed in this post, isn't unique - I think a lot of people go through it. Now, this is not to cheapen what you're experiencing but just to let you know that what you're feeling isn't abnormal or different or wacko. What you are experiencing is, in my opinion, is the process of your brain being rewired from associating emotions of love and happiness with your old assumptions that such emotions lead to fear, depression, and problems. What you are learning is, magically, that relationships can last and be awesome but can also extremely suck if they don't turn out the way you'd like.

Once you develop a longer relationship (or more relationships), you begin to form an emotional callous that stops looking outside yourself and associate your feelings automatically with other people. You start to realize that your love, your emotions, whatever, are your own and belong to you. Sure, they might have ended badly or might not have been pretty, but you start to realize how your relationships, in a lot of ways, belong to you.

Give this relationship more time to develop. Allow yourself the opportunity to experience more aspects of your relationship. And allow yourself any desire to rush, to make rash decisions, or beat yourself up for any assumptions you might have for how a relationship "should" work. You don't realize what you've actually gained from your past relationship because you haven't seen how what you learned actually can develop a better relationship in the one you're currently in. This might take a few more months or a few more years but, in time, a change in your thinking, confidence, and approach to relationships should come.
posted by Stynxno at 9:18 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

This was a problem for me too, entering into my current relationship. It'd been 6 or 7 years since my ex and I split up. I'd dated other people since then, but when this current relationship started forming, it started forming in a way that was more like a partnership, less like a dating thing, and that made me feel like I was getting into the same kind of relationship I'd been in before. Which was, frankly, a rotten one.

The key is that you have some control in shaping the relationship. You may feel like it's this thing that's being created without any help from you, but it's not. You're in on the ground floor. Talk about stuff. Talk about your worries so that everyone's aware of them, and so everyone has equal stake in ensuring that your fears don't become reality. Also -- and this is big -- you need to recognize that you are equally responsible for making sure those bad things you expect to happen DON'T. It's not his responsibility. All he can do is act in a trustworthy manner. That's 50% of the work. The other 50% falls on you -- and your part is to trust him, and to not let your fear start dictating how you act in the relationship.

Basically, you've got to let him do his job, and you've got to do yours. You need to realize too that there are two people in this relationship, and neither one of them is your ex. The common denominator is you. Problems that carry over from the last relationship aren't a result of your boyfriend being like your ex -- they're a result of you not recognizing that they're two different people.

You *are* strong enough. I think with the trust issues, you need to start with yourself. Trust *yourself* to communicate effectively and to act responsibly and to believe that you can do this.

Probably talking to a therapist is a good thing, because s/he'd be able to give you strategies for doing all this.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:19 AM on February 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

The first thing you need to do is get rid of that box with your ex-boyfriends stuff. Burn it. Throw it in a dumpster. Whatever. Keeping it does you no good. Who wants to read love letters from old flings? That's just a bad idea. Once all his stuff is gone, you still have your memories. And I find with time you filter out all the bad.

Second, it sounds like you don't actually have a problem. You're in a relationship that you are happy with, and you say your boyfriend is happy with. A very important life skill is to avoid worrying about problems you don't have. I'm not sure how you actually condition yourself to stop worrying though. I think that is a hard habit to break. Still, if you can sit down and think rationally about your current state right now, you'll probably see things are OK.

And, as has been said up thread, past mistakes are important, and make you who you are. You shouldn't regret them. (Well, unless they really are all kinds of stupid, I suppose.)
posted by chunking express at 9:22 AM on February 27, 2009

I found that when I got divorced, one of the things that helped me was burning certain mementos of and paperwork from the relationship with friends. It turned out there were several of us with things to burn, so we had a party and burned them all in someone's fireplace. It was a good release for all those bad feelings. Maybe you could do the same with those love letters with some good friends who were there toward the end of the relationship or helped you through the aftermath: a little ceremony to mark the end of grieving and moving on into this new relationship.

Also, I'll second what phatkitten said. I married at 22 and after I got divorced, I met a great guy who was so compatible with me that we frequently finish each other's sentences. It took me a while to learn to trust him, but I've been with him for more than ten years now and am deliriously happy. If we'd met at college, we wouldn't have been ready for each other. I needed all the bumps on the road to be ready for him (and vice versa).

What you're feeling isn't weird or strange or a sign that you're too fragile. You've just had a bad experience and are taking time to heal. Good for you for finding a new relationship; let it happen as it happens, honoring and working through your feelings and without rushing.
posted by immlass at 9:26 AM on February 27, 2009

Your heart broke before, yes? are still here. Surviving. Existing. Living. And even...being happy again.

My first heartbreak was no joke; it put me in a psych ward for a week with a nervous breakdown. My next relationship was on and off for years and my ex cheated a few times. It was really hard to get over. The following relationship was tainted by my distrust and insecurity, but a lot of it was warranted. That relationship ended very suddenly, and I surprised myself with the resilience I suddenly seemed to have developed. My current relationship is not tainted at all by the things other people have done to me, and while I think it's "going somewhere"--if it turns out otherwise, I know that I will be ok.

My point is, it does get easier with time. When you learn that "all guys" are not alike, you stop believing that the behavior of one could possibly indicate the behavior of another. So my ex what? Says nothing about me, says even less about my current love, says a lot about the ex.

A heartache that lasted for two years would have been well-served by therapy, and I recommend some now. It may or may not be coincidental that my easiest breakup to recover from was the one where I stayed in therapy and was able to work through a lot of my fear and pain.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:29 AM on February 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Whether it is through therapy or finding other interests or some other thing, I think you need to recognize or find more things that make you happy. Because, right now you feel like he is the only good thing in your life. It's not true, but you have convinced yourself that he's all you've got. It is scary to think that and it would be scary if it were true. It's not true.

So find or recognize some things outside of him that make you happy. Wow, if only it was that easy! You probably were trying to do all of that before you started seeing him to no avail. It's time to try again because you have a head start this time. A healthy, interesting relationship that fulfills you can give you an advantage in finding happiness elsewhere.
posted by soelo at 10:03 AM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's the thing. You did get something from that relationship--the knowledge that some people don't treat people very well in relationships. And that makes you cautious. And that's a good thing. Obviously it isn't enough to make you swear off dudes forever, so that is also good.

But listen to that voice of fear. It is there for a reason. After really getting hurt I spent a whole bunch of time trying to stop that voice. And what happened was that I got burned, because I kept turning off my warning system.

This isn't to say he's not to be trusted or that things are going bad, but you should give your fears one good listen and then decide if they are on target. If they aren't just acknowledge them and move on.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:21 AM on February 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

The fall out of break-ups unnerve us because we wind up craning our necks into the past and wondering, "When did it go wrong? When was the prime time to leave them? What are all the things I could have been doing when I was wasting my emotions on that guy?"

You are lucky, because it only took one heartbreak to teach you that the frisson of adrenaline and chemicals are not a vouchsafe for safety and security. It takes many of us three or four of those detonations before we learn to proceed with caution. I don't know how old you are, but you've got to grow up and accept that this relationship does have a possibility of ending and there is very little you can do to predict its expiration date. If you want a 100% watertight security against heartbreak, you will also end up 100% alone.

You deserve love. You deserve to risk putting yourself in the exact same position you found yourself in four years ago, because that's the only way to test the mettle of this new relationship. This isn't just your risk, it's also the other person's, and while it's totally normal to feel insecure and vulnerable, recognize that bottling up your anxieties will allow them to metastasize into bigger, scarier things that will hurt both of you. Talk to this guy, take breaks when you need them, seek therapy or your friends' advice if you need outside guidance, but do not think that this 24/7 worrying will confer any sort of insight or agency over the outcome of this relationship. Really: you deserve love.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:46 AM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stop whatever you're doing right now and find a clock. Seriously. Find one, preferably one that ticks.

Each of those ticks is a second that's now gone. And you'll never get it back. All you really have is the here and now, and if you're lucky, you also have what's coming up. You say your first relationship was a heart breaker? Hey, we've all been there... but the thing is, you have something wonderful now. You have something that could be even better tomorrow.

Enjoy the here and now. Take steps towards a better tomorrow and let the past go.

It's too easy to look back on the past and wonder "what if?", but you can't change it. Yesterday is gone. That past relationship is gone. If you dwell too much on the past, you're more likely to relive it as you treat tomorrow like it's another yesterday.

Tomorrow is only another yesterday if you choose to live it the same way. The same is true of your relationship. He is tomorrow's man.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:28 AM on February 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

How can I learn to stop letting my past relationship influence how I behave in my current one?

You can't, and you don't really want to -- you are the sum of all your past experiences. Forgetting the past dooms you to repeat it, and all that.

My advice: Talk about it with the current bf. My gf and I both came into our current relationship (now in its 8th year) with much baggage from long-dead relationships. Like you, it had nothing to do with pining away for our lost loves, but we still felt pain from what we'd been through.

We learned a lot about each other by sharing these experiences and feelings (that's what SOs are for, right?) and it made our relationship that much stronger.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:02 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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