I’ve ruined a number of relationships in my day. I’ve also had the great pleasure of creating a number of well-functioning, healthy, high-quality relationships. I’ve gone through phases of hopelessly lamenting to my friends, “I’m just no good at this interpersonal connection bullshit.” And I’ve had equally lengthy phases of demurely bragging to whoever would listen (usually a captive first date) that, “I like to think I’m pretty good at relationships.” My periods of romantic bliss pretty well balance out my crash-and-burn experiences. Both the highs and the lows have contributed to an ongoing lifetime education and research project--a perpetual attempt to figure out what the hell this “relationship” thing is, why human beings are drawn to it, and how to make it both awesome and not-sucky.
As is typical of human experience, the lessons learned out of negativity are more indelible in my brain. As a toddler I didn’t learn to avoid touching the hot stove when my mom gently said, “Honey, don’t touch it; you’ll get hurt.” I learned that lesson the day I actually touched it. As human beings, we are operating under a bias of negative reinforcement. From a survival standpoint, it makes more sense to remember to avoid potentially harmful and life-threatening experiences from the past rather than to cherish the good feelings brought on by the positive ones.
This is all to say that I don’t like to focus on the negative, but my relationship failures have brought the most important lessons into my life. Primarily, I’ve learned so much about what not to do, how not to get in my own way, and how not to think, feel, or act if I want relationships that are actually happy, healthy, and fulfilling for all parties involved. I’m a human being, which means it’s unavoidable that I will make mistakes in my relationships in the future. However, the following 3 things I have deemed relationship-ruiners, and I have committed to removing them from the picture of my love life, especially when beginning new relationships:
They say that happiness is good health and a bad memory. I’ve never liked the phrase. It always conjured up images of a puttering, senile, old person. Blissfully happy because they couldn’t remember the faults of their friends or the names of their grandchildren for that matter. Happiness? Yes, please. Good health? I’ll take that too. Bad memory? No, thank you.
I both endured and delivered a lot of hurt in my last major relationship. In the periods of reconciling and attempts at forgiveness, I found myself completely at a loss. I knew that the mistakes of the past belonged in the past. I had read The Power of Now. I knew the ultimate importance of staying in the present moment. I knew I was supposed to forgive things that happened in the past, but how the hell could I forget the past?
Telling someone to just forget the past is akin to telling them to not think of a white bear. We do not have the 3-second memory of a goldfish, and we are fantastically good at remembering mistakes made by significant others, trauma and pain inflicted upon us, moments of betrayal, and disappointment. Events from the past are often called up as our number one reference point for deciding whether or not to put our trust and faith in someone, especially a loved one. We have sayings for that too -- Past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. Or more specific and condemning -- Once a cheater, always a cheater.
This process of conjuring up evidence from the past in order to help shape the future is time-tested, discerning, and a great way to ruin a relationship.
The past is an odd paradox for those of us bound to a linear experience of time. The past is not real. It does not exist anywhere but within our own consciousness, victim to misremembering, biased interpretation, and egregious back-filling. And yet the past is inescapable. None of us can go back and change it, and to a certain extent the person that you are in this very moment is the product of all events and choices made in your past. So why isn’t it reasonable to look at your partner’s past behavior, mistakes, successes, and failures to determine what kind of person they might be in the future?
The problem is that this thinking and behavior means that your future or your partner’s future or the future of the relationship will forever be defined by the past. The future, instead of being open, vast, and full of infinite options, is being pre-written before it even happens.
He canceled on me last minute. I’m not going to make an effort to make plans with him any more.
I’m not going to talk to her about opening our relationship. She’ll just get pissed off.
He has slept with a lot of people. He must be unable to commit. He will probably cheat on me at some point.
These are all things that have come up in my coaching sessions with clients. Do any of these sound familiar?
This goes beyond the notion of giving second chances or extending forgiveness. If you want to truly have a future where anything can happen -- whether that’s reconciliation and bonding after a bad fight, taking a big step together such as cohabiting or having children, or anything else you could dream up -- it’s not a matter of forgiving the past or forgetting it. It’s a matter of waking up to the fact that the past does not matter. If you want a future where anything can happen, the limiting past cannot be living in it.
The present is the present; let it be here. The future is the future; let it be blank, wide open, and ripe for creation. The past is the past; let it stay that way.
But the past doesn’t just plague us in our long-term relationships. Frequently, it finds clever ways to pop up in brand new relationships, which in theory shouldn’t have much of a past. In new relationships, the past and many other factors combine to manifest the next relationship-ruiner…
Shortly after posting my hilarious and revolting experiences in online dating in Istanbul, I went on a first date with a Turkish man, Mehmet, who completely defied every conclusion I had made about Turkish men.
I won’t go into the details of the romance that ensued over the next few weeks, but just know that it tossed me headlong into an intense chemical rush of NRE (new relationship energy) that kept me in a well-established state of head-over-heels. I happily let myself sink into delicious, ecstatic, pheromone-driven intoxication. Of course, it didn’t take too long for some relationship-ruiners to creep in.
This is the best, I would think. He’s so amazing. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to feel this way!
And then, the Past would pipe up.
Yeah, you felt that way about your ex too. You thought he was so amazing. And look how painful that turned out.
That was the opening that Fear needed to enter the picture.
It’s going to happen again. You are going to get hurt again. Don’t get so moony-eyed that you forget the danger.
This mental repartee took me from grinning like a lovesick idiot to quiet, sullen contemplation in about 30 seconds. The withdrawal was noticed immediately by Mehmet, and a few hours later he asked what was going on.
I launched into the best academic, impersonal, relationship-coach-y answer I could muster. “I think for everyone the process of starting a new relationship and getting close to someone is both exciting and scary--”
But he immediately cut me off. “Why does everything have to be scary?”
I was dumbstruck. Before I could even open my mouth to protest, I realized that I described literally every positive event in my life as a mixture of exciting and scary. Writing a book? Exciting and scary. Selling off my stuff to travel the world alone? Exciting and scary. Going on national TV? Exciting and scary.
I was allowing fear to infect all of the good stuff.
Much like it’s impossible to tell someone to just forget the past, you also can’t tell someone to not be afraid. Fear is not rational and rarely responds to logic. If you can’t just talk yourself out of being afraid, what’s the solution?
In her book The Fear Cure, Dr. Lissa Rankin explains how much fear negatively impacts the immune system. The endocrine system does not differentiate between different fearful scenarios, and it releases immunity-compromising stress hormones whether you are experiencing “true” fear (fear that arises in actual life-threatening situations such as a car accident, being physically assaulted, falling, etc.) or “false” fear (fear that arises when you have to give a presentation at work, when you’re asking someone out on a date, etc.). Our fears, big or small, leave us vulnerable to disease and rob us of joy.
Dr. Rankin proposes allowing our fears to teach us exactly what it is we need to address within ourselves in order to remove our barriers to happiness. Heartbreak and loss crack us open, and in that crack we can witness who we really are, what we really need, and find so many more opportunities to continue to live and love, even when we feel like shutting everything out. She even proposes granting permission to break your heart -- to a pet, to a child, to a new romantic partner. When you give your permission to let someone break your heart, you willingly accept that even though there may be pain in the future, it is something to be embraced and used for growth and understanding, not something to fear.
When I inwardly granted "heartbreak-permission" not only to my new relationship, but also to my future adventures and projects, I experienced a newfound sense of peace. Heartbreak and failure may or may not knock at my door in the future, but regardless, I know to embrace them rather than fear them in the present.
These changes in my thinking about the past and about fear made it so much easier to drop the most common behavior that they inspire….
This one doesn’t need much explanation. We all do it. All the time. We preserve ourselves, our comfort, our image, our pride by not leaving the job or the relationship that is sapping our energy. By not approaching that attractive person across the room. We take the easier route more often than not, for the sake of safety, stability, and to avoid discomfort.
Please do not confuse self preservation with self protection. If someone is abusing you, blatantly disregarding you, or intentionally inflicting harm in any way, by all means get the hell out of there. Let that relationship ruin itself into oblivion so that you can walk away. But I’m talking about preservation.
Preservation is something that the Egyptians did to mummies. The elaborate process was an attempt to keep the corpse from rotting, to keep it the same as it was at the time of death. In their thinking, the body had to remain unchanged so that the soul could still recognize the body after death and return to it in the afterlife.
We self preserve in order to keep things the same, to remain unchanged. This isn’t the time or place to go into the Buddhist ideals surrounding the acceptance of impermanence. But if you think that remaining unchanged is a good life choice, Google some images of “mummies unwrapped.” It doesn’t turn out great.
I’ve now looked at enough unwrapped mummy pictures to sufficiently populate my nightmares tonight, so I will wrap this up. (No pun intended.) I’ve created a new little mantra for myself that I mentally whip out any time I’m depressed over the past, anxious about pain in the future, or withdrawing in order to self-preserve:
Keep the past out of the future.
Give him/her/it permission to break your heart.
Halloween is over. Don’t be a mummy.