We all like to think we’re not bringing the baggage of the past into our new relationships. But no matter how much you are totally over your exes, it’s a fact that they’re still sitting with you across the table from your new date. You might as well get a bigger table because your parents, your high school prom date who broke your heart and that camp crush who wouldn’t sit next to you at the sing-along are there too. They’ve created the dating lens through which you view all romantic interactions. Like it or not, you need to have one last conversation with them – at least in your head – before you’re free of their toxic legacy.
The frustrating reality is that even if we learn constructive dating skills or take our time selecting the “right” person, we’ve still got to search and destroy the sabotagers we’re not even aware of on an emotional level. This is done by forgiving all those people who wounded us so we can begin a new relationship in a healthy way, insists Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love. “Otherwise, we’ll keep reproducing the same old patterns that don’t work without realizing it,” he says.
I’ll admit I thought this was a little woo-woo when I first heard it. I am over my exes: I’ve cried enough. I’ve made lists why I’m better off without them. Then just to be noble, I’ve made lists of the good things they gave me and imagine myself carrying this little light of love to my next relationship.
But they still show up anyway! I used to date someone who always walked slightly ahead of me, and I hated it. Now I dare anyone to take the lead. (My boyfriend thankfully walks alongside me.) If a man doesn’t introduce me properly at a party, I feel a knee-jerk resentment surge in my chest. My head doesn’t stop and ask, “Did he have a chance to introduce you when his friend was talking a mile a minute?” or “Did he forget his colleague’s name?” Nope. I’m reacting based on my history of being with someone who didn’t include me in his social life. Years later, I still have to take a deep breath and remember this is a learned reaction – and doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s really going on.
If that’s not depressing enough, Enright says we’re also influenced by our parents’ relationships. For example, if your mother was constantly disappointed by your father’s failure to make her feel special on Valentine’s Day, you’re likely going to be extra sensitive about the holiday, even if you hate it. “You have to ask two major questions when you want to connect with someone: ‘Is there anything about my parents’ relationship that I’ve socially inherited that I’m bringing to this relationship?’” explains Enright. “’Also, has my trust been damaged by past failed relationships?’ Otherwise, you’ll be subtly keeping the other person at arm’s length because you’re afraid of getting hurt, even if the new person is a keeper.”
How do you accomplish this karma cleanup? Enright recommends the same basic process he’s used with battered women, incest survivors and cancer patients, among others. It involves acknowledging your feelings about those who hurt you, making a decision to give respect or kindness to them (even if just in your head), trying to develop compassion from understanding the hardships or stresses in their lives and letting go of the bad feelings. Then you find meaning in your suffering. Perhaps that purpose is to make a commitment to prevent those patterns from showing up again. In addition to helping you get ready for a new romantic chapter, forgiveness has other benefits, such as reducing anger, anxiety and depression. It also improves your self-esteem because by seeing the humanity in others, you see the value in yourself.
It’s hard work, but Enright insists forgiveness gives you the confidence to get back out there and try again. And hopefully, you’ll gain a little self-knowledge in the process. You’ll know better what your issues are and how to handle them before they hurt your fledgling new love. With a little practice, you’ll keep those old ghosts at home.
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.