Projecting a past relationship onto a current one is like re-living a dream we had last night, in the light of day. The past is no longer “real,” but our memories and experiences from our last relationship can come back to haunt us. And while we all know intellectually that it is not a good thing to do to ourselves or our significant others, it happens to many of us more frequently than we’d like.
Though we innately know that it doesn’t feel good to replay the past and project it on our current partner, there are two other important reasons that we want to curb this tendency to rehash the past. First, it blocks your joy. True joy can only be experienced in the present moment. Even old memories that are joyful, are only joyful when thought about in the present moment. We can never feel joy while worrying about the past or future. And often, if we are comparing our partner to the “last one,” we are not appreciating the present, thereby restricting joy.
The second reason re-playing old relationships is harmful is because it hurts your growth with your current partner. Unless you begin to live in the present and experience new levels of intimacy with your current partner, your relationship will never reach its full potential. It will either never compare to how great the last partner was, or you might base your current appreciation for your current partner’s actions on the fact that they are so much better than “the last one.” In either case, you are bringing that last person into your relationship, making it a trio.
Now that the motivations for letting go of the past are on the table, it’s time to figure out how to actually start releasing our grip on the previous situation.
Honor the love and lessons you’ve learned.
Sometimes, especially if the last relationship was positive, it is hard to truly live in the present relationship because you feel like it is dishonoring the good that came from your last love.
Rather than feel like you must completely disregard the lessons and love that were shared, it is better to recognize and value the good times that you had. Love does not need to “go away” in order for you to commit to someone new. For example, though I am deeply happy in my marriage to my husband, I still appreciate the good times and lessons I learned with my past partner. Love for one does not have to “cancel out” love I once had for another.
On the other hand, it is not best to dwell while in a current relationship on the last one in an actively romantic way or by comparing and contrasting strengths. This is not about being actively maintaining a love affair or keeping score between partners. It is about allowing your past to fully exist as a part of yourself that informs and enriches your life as a whole.
Have a closing ceremony.
To close the last relationship chapter, it can help to have a formal “closing ceremony.” The concept of a closing ceremony comes from Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Eat, Pray, Love. As a culture, we do a lot to celebrate the beginnings of things, but we are not always as mindful to signify the end of things.
In my own life, I like to “close” different parts of my life (not just relationships) by writing on a lined piece of paper. On one side, I write all the difficulties and memories that I keep recycling in my mind. One thought or memory goes on each line on the paper. Then, on the other side of the paper, I write a letter to myself reminding myself of all the positive experiences, love, and wisdom that I’ve gained from that aspect of my life. If I shared many difficult things on the first side of the paper, I write my letter about how those challenges have affected me and helped me to become a stronger, more resilient person.
After the letter is complete, I cut it up line by line and say each line aloud before burning it. Later, as those old thoughts and memories come to haunt me in the present, I’m able to gently remind myself that that chapter is closed and that I am a better person because I experienced that lesson. Dwelling on the details of what happened and why is no longer necessary.
You are welcome to use this variation on the closing ceremony concept for yourself, or, you can make up one that feels right for you.
Voice your fears.
Last but not least, I think it is helpful to share your fears and recurring thoughts to someone who can help you process your emotions and see things in a more objective light. This could be a counselor, therapist, coach, caring friend, or family member.
Often, by not talking about something that we struggle with, it becomes stronger and more powerful in our lives. By sharing our thoughts and concerns out in the open, we are allowing ourselves to see our internal dialogue in a new light and in a more proactive way.
Though it might be tempting to talk to your current partner about these fears, and often that can be helpful if done carefully and tactfully, it might be wise to talk openly to someone less invested in either relationship, who can help you find the peace you need to bring yourself more fully to your present partner.
Though none of these practices in and of themselves may help you to completely stop comparing your current relationship to the past, they can help you start to move towards that aim, one moment at a time.
You, and your current partner, deserve your complete attention in order to reach your fullest potential and learn the lessons this relationship has to give.