Do you ever wonder if you’ll get out from under the shadow of past relationships? It’s not uncommon for people who are divorced or breaking up with a significant other to find themselves attracted to the same or similar types of partners. But as you grow and learn about yourself, it’s important to look at the choices you make in romantic partners and to see what lessons can be learned from your experiences.
Becoming more aware of red flags that may signal problems can also help you to pick partners who are capable of sustaining a loving, romantic relationship. The key to healing from the past is to make a decision to stop pouring your energies into saving a negative relationship. If you believe you are worthy of love and happiness, you won’t settle for less than you deserve in relationships.
Carolyn, an attractive and intelligent single mom in her early 40’s, finds herself repeating negative patterns from her past. She tends to fall for men who are emotionally distant like her father who left when she was seven years old. Carolyn reflects: “I just keep wasting time with the same types of men, men who hurt me, who are unfaithful and leave me alone.” Her comments mirror the sentiments of many of my clients who just can’t seem to break away from the emotional attachment they feel to unavailable or inappropriate partners.
Do you worry that you will make the same mistakes over and over again? Moving out of denial and the influences of the past is a huge hurdle. But you have an opportunity to learn from your experience and build the kind of relationship that eluded you in the past.
Here are 11 ways to avoid repeating patterns of past relationships:
- Gain awareness of your own history – dating back to childhood. For instance, if you are a people pleaser you may be drawn to partners who you attempt to fix or repair. Learn more about how your parents’ unhealthy patterns have impacted your choices in partners.
- Accept your part in the dynamic. For instance if you’ve experienced a pursuer-distancer pattern, you may realize that you have a tendency to avoid intimacy (distancer) or fear abandonment (pursuer). It’s natural for one person to see their style as preferred and to be convinced that their partner needs to change – neglecting to see their part in the tug-of-war over intimacy.
- Examine your expectations about intimate relationships. You might be focused on your dream of how a relationship should be rather than the reality of how it is – leading to disappointment. There is no such thing as a soul mate or perfect partner.
- Let go of being a victim and positive things will start to happen. When you see yourself as a victim, your actions will confirm a negative view of yourself. Instead, focus on the strengths that helped you cope so far in life. Don’t obsess about past choices in partners but learn from them.
- Don’t rush into a romantic relationship. Make sure you’ve dated someone for at least two years and are at least in your late 20s before you make a life-long commitment to reduce your chance of divorce.
- Make sure that you have common values with individuals who you date. If you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce.
- Try not to compare your relationship to your friends. Relationship envy or fear of being alone can cause you to stay with an unacceptable partner or to settle for someone who isn’t a good match for you.
- Stop comparing your own romantic relationships to your parents. Attempt to see yourself as capable of learning from the past, rather than repeating it.
- Use positive intentions such as “I am capable of creating loving, trusting relationships.” Recognize the newness in each day and that you have the power to make positive things happen.
- Focus on the things that you can control. Realize that you can’t control your ex’s behavior or your parents but you can choose a life partner who shares your view of love, fidelity, and commitment.
- Write a new narrative or story for your life– one that includes taking your time picking partners who are trustworthy and willing to work on a committed relationship if that’s your desire.
There are many reasons why adults get stuck in the past and have difficulty establishing healthy relationships in the present. You might find yourself in relationship patterns that mirror your family of origin. It’s understandable to repeat patterns that you observed in your childhood home. Another factor may be what Freud referred to as repetition compulsion. This is a tendency that people have to repeat patterns from the past as a way to gain mastery over them. In either case, becoming more aware of the unhealthy relationship patterns can be a good first step.
Beth, an energetic woman in her late thirties, spent over two decades struggling with ghosts from the past and experiencing turmoil in romantic relationships. Because she had little insight into her past, she found herself reenacting the painful memories of her parents’ marriage and subsequent breakup. Beth’s parents split when she was nine years old when her mother discovered that her father had been cheating on her for years.
During young adulthood, Beth struggled through a series of unhealthy, short-term relationships until she met her fiancé’, Rick, at age thirty-six. Prior to meeting Rick, she hadn’t experienced a healthy relationship. She admits to sabotaging her relationships by being mistrustful and controlling. As Beth describes her issue with trust, she says, “Trust and communication are major difficulties for me. I tend to hold everything in and then blow up. It takes a lot to gain my trust and if it’s broken, there’s a possibility it may not be earned back.” Fortunately, Rick has earned Beth’s trust by being consistent with his words and actions over a period of several years. Beth is working on her fear of being vulnerable and not holding in her feelings with Rick – allowing them to reach a deeper level of intimacy.
For nearly over a decade, Beth avoided making a commitment because she was mistrustful and fearful of ending up like her parents. Like many daughters of divorce, she needed special permission to grieve the loss of her original family. With support from a seasoned therapist, Beth gained the insight to break her self-defeating pattern of mistrust and fear of commitment. The benefits of not rushing into a romantic relationship have paid off for Beth because she and Rick have built trust gradually; have a better friendship, fewer disagreements, and less disappointment.
With time and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you need to thrive. You don’t have to let your past dictate the decisions you make today. Restoring your faith in love includes building relationships based on love, trust, and intimacy. Remember to be gentle with yourself and others on your journey.
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