How to Learn from Past, Imperfect Romantic Relationships

Acknowledging or examining past failures in relationships is daunting for a few reasons.  First, pride gets in the way.  We’d like to believe that we were just unlucky in love, or victims of love gone awry.

The truth is, however, that we are always deeply involved in the success or lack of success of relationships. We’re not innocent bystanders.

As one man I counseled told me, as he prepared to divorce his fourth wife, “The first three, you swear it’s them.”

The deeper reason we are resistant to realistically examining our relationships is that today’s relationships are so often rooted in unexamined dynamics from earlier relationships in life.  They are a mirror of, or a kneejerk reaction against, the types of connections we had with parents, siblings, earlier lovers and friends.  So, looking at lost love brings up buried feelings about all kinds of losses—the perfect parenting we wish we had gotten, the losses we wish we could have avoided, the struggles we continue to face in our journeys to overcome the imperfect past and forge a more perfect future.

I tell people as often as I can that human beings overestimate the discomfort they will experience in understanding their life experiences, even back to very early chapters in their life stories.  The critical things to look at are buried six inches deep, not three feet.  They’re right over your shoulder, not lost in the rearview mirror.  And the relief and self-acceptance and empowerment that comes with knowing where you have been emotionally in life and where you intend to go is beyond imagination.

Our fears of reclaiming our life stories are paper tigers.  I have done this work for more than fifteen years.  I haven’t had a single person who has been weakened by looking at the truth about his or her life and sharing it with others.  Every individual—and there have been thousands—has been strengthened by the journey.

The truth always wins.  In other words, you can try to be someone you’re not.  You can try to hold up shields against your own internal truth.  But all you’re really doing is building an emotional fortress that turns into an emotional prison.  Once you start taking down the walls to your internal self, once you embrace who you have been and who you wish to become, others will, too.  And that kind of feedback will only strengthen your resolve to keep your heart open to who you really are and how everything you really can be—in life and in love.

Dr. Keith Ablow

    

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