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in your relationship

Couple Therapy Session

The Ghost of Lovers Past


Oh love.  A story old as time.  Funny how one simple little word can immediately conjure visions of fairy tales and romance.  Love brings with it a sense of hope, newness, and stability.  It takes us to a place of butterflies and rainbows, sunshine and good hair.  A similarly ancient and profound story is that of love’s evil twin, heartbreak.  What a stark contrast between those two concepts.  Opposite sides of the same coin.  One is not possible without the other and yet having one leaves us vulnerable to the other.  Both equally powerful and life changing. 

Today we’re going to focus on the darker of the two.  Today we’re going to talk about surprising ways your relationship can affect you years after the first tinge of heartbreak is felt.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not talking about the one night stand or even the lackluster two year fling.  I’m talking about that passionate, intense romance that still haunts you to this day.  While the vision of him grabbing a beer out of the fridge is but a distant memory and the smell of his cologne is long gone, his fingerprints are still all over you…all over your heart and mind.

Psychologically speaking, effects of love gone wrong can last longer than you’d like to know.  Though we value our memory and rely on its use every second of our day, heartbreak is one reason we resent our memory the most.  If only we could forget that lover, pretend he never existed, wow how much easier life would be, how much easier relationships would be.  But, this simply just is not the case.  Instead, we’re left to bear the burden that comes with opening our hearts to another.  A burden fraught with consequences in our psyche.  Journey with me into the depths of these impacts and, with an open mind, give yourself permission to view heartbreak with eyes wide open.  You see, when we understand the lasting effects of heartbreak, we can overcome the sadness and yes, even open our hearts to another once again.

Preoccupation.  The most incessant consequence experienced after heartbreak is the psychological preoccupation with everything that is your ex.  You’re trying to mingle at a networking event and all the while you’re holding your breath, waiting for him to walk through that door.  Or maybe you’re driving through an intersection near his place and see a car similar to his, you speed up and look over just to catch a glimpse of a stranger.  You feel both anxiety and excitement at the thought of seeing his face, only to be slapped with disappointment when it’s not him.

Intrusive Thoughts.  Similar to preoccupation in that the thought of him is constantly looming just below your conscious awareness only to pop up at the most inopportune time.  You’re in the arms of another man, trying to enjoy yourself when suddenly a scene from your last rendezvous with the ex flashes through your mind.  Worse yet is lingering just a tad too long in that memory, only to call out his name, accidently ruining what could have been something great with someone new.

Nightmares.  Dreams are the brain’s way of processing conscious and unconscious thought.  When you experience cognitive preoccupation with your ex, he’s bound to provide regular cameos as you sleep.  Inevitably, the dream ends the same, with his cold, heartless rejection of you.  The following morning you can’t get him out of your mind and it takes everything in you not to call him. 

Romanticizing.  Of all the lasting impacts of heartbreak, romanticizing is the worst.  This is a clear disconnection between the heart and mind.  You know he’s no good for you.  You remember the slamming doors and broken promises.  You can still feel the tears rolling down your hot face.  But you miss him nonetheless.  Rather than rationalizing with yourself, you sulk in the glimmers of happier times, when you thought he was the one.

Comparison.  You pity the men who walk into your life after he walked out because you know you just can’t help but compare them to him.  Sure, he had his flaws, but you’d take those shortcomings over the inept men that walk you to your door at the end of the night.  They’ll never quite measure up, no matter how hard you want to make it work.

Regret.  Regret is such a tough consequence to heartbreak because of its very nature.  You tried so hard to get away from your ex but now (and every day since the last time your eyes locked on one another) you want nothing more than to get him back.  You replay every dig you took, every attempt to tick him off you made, every major blowup you instigated.  You ask yourself why but there is no rational response and at the end of the day, you just have to live with it.

Longing.  One of the most painful impacts of love gone wrong is the longing you’re left with once it’s over.  You feel a deep sense of being incomplete.  A yearning quenched only by him.  Yes, you miss him, but it’s so much more than that.  Your soul feels every minute of his absence and what’s worse, you know there’s no turning back.

Negative Self-Talk.  Another lasting effect of an old flame is the lovely gift of negative self-talk that keeps on giving like the Energizer Bunny.  You know he said it out of anger, to hurt you intentionally, but you still can’t help but believe those words to this day.  When that phrase he used to call you in the heat of an argument scrolls through your brain, you don’t even bat an eye at accepting the statement as truth, despite how others might try to convince you.

Triggers.  It’s amazing the mental associations we make with lovers.  After a breakup, suddenly everything reminds you of him.  You’re surrounded by constant cues, triggers to rub salt in the wound.  That Taylor Swift song (okay, every Taylor Swift song).  When your coworker orders the lobster roll.  When your neighbor sports a Patriots hat.  When you spray that perfume he picked for you.  Every.  Single.  Day.  It’s maddening.  Literally.

Avoidance.  And because you’re inundated with triggers, you notice your habits start to change.  You’re suddenly like a person suffering with a phobia in the way you avoid people, places, and things that remind you of him.  Any detour you can make to decrease the exposure is worth your time…if only you weren’t constantly running late.

Yes, there are countless ways your relationship can affect you years later, each one more surprising than the next.  But going on and on isn’t going to help the situation.  No, our precious time would be better spent focusing on how exactly it is you’re going to overcome the emotional, psychological, physical, and relational impacts of that extinguished flame.

Closure.  Let’s start where you should have left off if your intention was ever to leave him in the dust for good, closure.  Closure is what happens when you end your relationship not in the heat of the moment, not out of spite, not to hurt him before he hurts you, but when you’re an adult and you realize that this just isn’t going to work.  Closure looks like a mature, calm conversation in which you each own your personal contributions to the relational dysfunction, make amends for any wrongdoing hanging over your head, and wish each other well.  Closure is a great time to reminisce, apologize, and say anything you think you might regret not saying later on.  And here’s something to consider.  If you didn’t get proper closure back when things ended, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and asking for that conversation so you can finally let go.  Now, if either of you have since married I’m going to suggest an alternative; write him a letter with everything you might want to say.  Then burn it.  In this scenario you still get the thoughts and feelings outside of yourself, which will provide a difference kind of closure, but closure nonetheless.   

Self-Care.  The most important thing you can do to heal a broken heart is to take care of yourself.  Healthy coping skills look like taking up yoga or baking, exercising, journaling, spa days, beach days, vacation, ladies night out, etc.  Healthy coping skills do not look like excessive drinking and partying.  Although that might feel good in the moment, it actually just sets back the healing process.

Celibacy.  Another way to care for yourself in the healing process after a breakup is staying celibate.  I’m not sure why, but our society tells us once a relationship is over it’s time to hit the gym and the nightclubs harder than ever.  Get fit and get a rebound.  Wrong!  A rebound is just another way to avoid healing.  It temporarily distracts you but prolongs the inevitable.  Not to mention how terrible it is for the new guy.  Totally unfair.                                                                  

Boundaries.  One of my personal favorites, healthy boundaries are sure to do the trick when it comes to moving on.  Knowing what your boundaries are and sticking to them regardless of the circumstance is super important to avoiding future pain.  The beginning of a relationship is the perfect time to implement healthy boundaries.  It really sets the stage for the connection and safeguards you from future fiascos.

Reconciliation.  The last point I want to make when it comes to overcoming heartbreak is one not many would suggest, and that is reconciliation.  We say if you really love someone let them go and if they come back it was meant to be.  If we really believe that, why do others baulk at the idea of reuniting with their ex?  The fact is, sometimes the right one does get away.  If that’s the case, don’t be so proud that you aren’t willing to attempt reaching out and testing the waters.

So.  What’s the point of all this?  The purpose of today’s session was to gain some clarity on the multitude of ways you can continue to be effected by past relationships.  When your eyes are opened to these truths, it creates an environment conducive to self-reflection and behavioral change.  Gaining tools to help you recover from heartbreak is always a good use of your time.  Best of luck in implementing some of the strategies mentioned.  If you get stuck on your journey to health and healing, don’t hesitate to seek some guidance from a professional.

 

Jennifer