Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
When we get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past -- the very things that we might want to avoid dealing with. Over and over again, I've seen relationships sabotaged or crumble because one or both partners are unaware that they bring a backlog of hurts, fears, and ambivalence from their past into present interactions.
The first step in getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. Relationship experts, Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.D. write, "A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow." Perhaps it's because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we are confronted with wounds from our past. For instance, Diana, a woman I interviewed for my book Love We Can Be Sure Of, overgeneralizes her fear of being hurt in the past. She expects to lose and has become accustomed to losing.
Diana is a petite brunette with bright blue eyes and a beautiful smile. She is smart, well-composed, and pursuing a career in advertising sales. At 24years old, she is aware that she sabotages relationships that might be good for her. Diana's tendency is to fall in love (a little too quickly); break up, and then make up every other day with a partner who she knows is wrong for her. But in spite of her on-again, off-again romances, she can't seem to pull away from guys who are unavailable.
With great intensity in her voice Diana says, "It's almost as if I'm addicted to pain. It's like I'm so familiar with that adrenalin rush that I get from being in a bad relationship, I don't feel comfortable with a guy who treats me right."
In their breakthrough book Conscious Loving, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks write: "Conflict can be powerfully addictive. Some of us are conflict junkies, and that addiction lasts far longer than substance abuse addictions. We may be attached to the drama of fights, even if we protest mightily that we want serenity." Diana has become addicted to pain and feels uncomfortable when things are calm.
Fear of failure in a relationship that might be good for us can also hold us back and prevent us from being our best selves. It limits us by causing anxiety and fostering a pessimistic attitude about the future. We fear that when we open up ourselves to other people, they will hurt us, and we will lose out on love. Fear of relationship failure is something Diana knows well. Many times, even in the most blissful of moments, there is a lingering thought in the back of her head that her relationship will not work, and that it will come crashing down on her. Diana explains,
"I have fear, and that is all. Fear of relationship failure. I ask myself 'How will I get out of it? I'm afraid to follow the pattern of my parents.' I'm also scared to open myself up to someone, probably because of fear of being rejected and vulnerable."
Diana knows in her head that she deserves a healthy relationship but she continues to sabotage those that might lead to commitment. Currently, she's dating Justin who hasn't given her any reason to doubt his intentions -- at least nothing Diana can pinpoint. However, in the past, she's been drawn to men who are all wrong for her. She says, "I meet a nice guy like Justin who is fun to be around, but when it comes to getting serious, I always bail out."
What is it that keeps Diana in a cycle of pursuing self-destructive relationships and sabotaging healthy ones? For many people, pain is a familiar feeling. Conflict is what's comfortable. Dealing with an unavailable man or woman is our wheelhouse. A partner who wants nothing more than to be with us and make our happiness his/her top priority is alien.
Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can spark change. The good news is that can you unlock your past and make conscious choices about what you want out of life and relationships. Author Karen McMahon writes, "Dating and being in a relationship can be immensely valuable as it is only when we are IN relationship that we work out our "issues."
There are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and moving into healthier relationship patterns. Sometimes, we might take our parents' offenses to heart - such as an unhappy marriage or high conflict divorce -- and blame ourselves. After all, children want to admire their caregivers so when they are untrustworthy, children may blame themselves as a way to make sense of their world. Some people even create a narrative for their life that focuses on suffering and blame.
The following steps will help you move on from the past and make healthier choices in present relationships:
• Gain awareness of past hurt and adopt a more realistic perspective of it. This might mean talking to your parents about their marriage or taking a closer look at your own relationships.
• Acknowledge the damage that was done and shift to an impersonal perspective that's focused on understanding and healing rather than blame.
• Find ways to repair damage by writing a new narrative for your life -- one that includes partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on building a committed relationship.
• Examine your expectations about intimate partnerships. You might be more focused on
your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is -- leading to disappointment.
• Focus on the things you can control. Accept that you can't control the past but can exercise the power of choice today.
Let's close on this powerful quote: "Self-awareness is one of the rarest of human commodities. I don't mean self-consciousness where you're limiting and evaluating yourself. I mean being aware of your own patterns." -- Tony Robbins