Stop Letting the Past Rule Your Present Relationships

I was a significantly different person three years ago. I was a senior in high school and I had no idea where I wanted to go to college. I had different friends, different clothes, and different goals. However, I was also struggling with heartache. This emotional pain was mostly coming from a place of insecurity and rejection. Thankfully, time has brought growth, happiness, and clear skin (oh, I almost forgot — a pandemic, too). Of course, the past may be history, but there are still memories that stay with us. There are certain paths we have forged and decisions we continue to make because of past experiences.

 There are many experiences we have lived that we are grateful for. These situations have made us smarter, stronger, and kinder. However, when it comes to relationships, the past  can be different. The vulnerable moments with a significant other are harder to let go of. Many of us find ourselves manifesting a future based on the past. In some scenarios, this might look like avoiding nice guys because you accept toxicity, or having a bad experience during sex and being scared to try again. As for me? Having been too emotionally dependent on a guy three years ago, I have now turned into a person who relies on my emotional independence. Independence in the form of self-fulfillment was a hard-won battle for me. However, my independence ironically holds me back now. I avoid communication and push people away. Remembering my past has made me scared to risk losing my emotional independence again.

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Relationship patterns

Some of you reading this may know exactly what your own toxic pattern is. However, there are also some of you who may not know if you even have one, or maybe you feel you always self-sabotage relationships, but don’t know why. In many cases, chronic cases of bad relationship patterns call for more professional intervention. Psychoanalyzing myself is a hobby of mine, but not a profession and definitely not recommended. However, that is not to say we shouldn’t do some reflecting. 

According to Business Insider, the following patterns are tell-tale signs that your old relationships are affecting your current ones: You always attract the same type of people, you have “hang-ups” about intimacy, you struggle to communicate, you are constantly anxious, you push people away, and there is no trust between you and your partner. If you are like me, you identify with more than one of these signs.

Why we have patterns in relationships

A couple weeks ago I met a person who, by all means, was amazing. It was the first time I had a mutual connection and, to put it cheesily, a spark with someone since high school. Despite this, I found myself avoiding communication with him. I was too anxious to look at his texts, so I wouldn’t have to respond. I didn’t understand why, but I knew this required some thought because, deep down, I didn’t want to pass up this chance. 

It seems the world didn’t want me to pass it up either. As I tried to explore my feelings weeks ago, I ended up getting overwhelmed and decided to turn on a podcast for comfort and distraction. I turned on the podcast that would make me feel as if I am listening in on an interesting conversation with Carrie and Sam from Sex and the City. That week on the Girls Gotta Eat podcast, author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb joined hosts Raina and Ashley. I had already started my own article when this episode came out. At the time, I was a bit stuck, personally and professionally in how to proceed with my writing. So, you can imagine how I jumped out of my chair when the women brought up “how to stop your bad dating patterns.”  

There was one thing Gottlieb said in particular that made me pick up my planner to write it down. The phenomenon that occurs in relationships where we repeat similar behaviors and habits is called repetition compulsion. Repetition compulsion occurs without our intention or awareness. And why does this happen? It feels familiar. The patterns occur because they feel comfortable to us. Gottlieb used an example of a woman who always dated the same type of man. The type who always ended up treating her badly. Gotllieb stated that this woman didn’t know she was always choosing these guys, but they were all she knew. According to Gottlieb, stopping that pattern was hard for the woman because that would mean change and humans do not do well with that. “Change, even positive change, involves loss and uncertainty,” Gottlieb told the podcast.  

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Breaking the pattern

So, how can we effectively cope with this change to break out of our patterns? I decided to ask a professional who could speak to the Her Campus audience, directly. Jessica Kaplan is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked in the field for 20 years. As her title suggests, she’s focused on relationships, marriages and families.  Part of her job involves “recogniz[ing] problematic behavioral patterns or faulty beliefs that lead to unhappiness.” 

According to Kaplan, we need to change our perspective of the past. We should try to see each relationship as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. We can learn “what we want and don’t want in a partner, how to set healthy boundaries and advocate for our needs, how to determine if it’s safe to be vulnerable with a person, how to establish equality within the relationship, and how to set realistic expectations for our partner.” If we are able to think of past relationships as part of our growth, then it becomes easier for us to stop letting them control us. 

I asked Kaplan about my own situation. I explained my past experience dealing with disappointment and rejection. I also described my compulsion to push people away. “Hitting bumps, challenges, and heartache in our early relationships is normal. It’s important to try to not look at the past relationship (or one’s behavior and feelings with regard to that relationship) as a failure or regret. Instead [we need to look at it] as an important part of one’s journey in learning how to establish healthy intimacy,” Kaplan told me. 

Changing our ways may seem like a difficult and exhausting journey. According to Gottlieb, it’s true that breaking any pattern or habit doesn’t happen overnight, but instead through small steps. As we adjust our relationship with our past, it helps to practice trying new relationship behaviors. Gottlieb said on Girls Gotta Eat that the most effective way to bring about any change is to practice. Change in relationships is no different. “Most big transformations come about from the tiny steps we take along the way. Most therapy occurs outside of the therapy room when what is talked about is put into practice,” Gottlieb said. This could look like going out with a person who may not be your "type.” 

Ultimately, Kaplan and Gottlieb helped me realize a lot more than my own psychoanalysis did. The past that took me a while to recover from, still lives in my mind as both regret and as a familiar situation. I must accept and appreciate the past because it taught me a lot. Now, it is time to let it go by letting the fear go and seeking what I truly want. My coveted emotional independence is what has been familiar and safe to me for three years. However, my ideal future includes a significant other. If I am going to have a shot at the future I value, then I need to face whatever discomfort comes with change. After all, change brings us all closer to happiness. If not for change, life would be stagnant and our best selves, partners, and experiences would not be out there waiting for us. So, with that, I am logging off to go text a guy!