Can We Learn From Our Past Relationships?

Can We Learn From Our Past Relationships?



As a judge in family court, my daily hope is that break ups become less common. But the facts do not support my desire, and the cultural reality is that the national wedding bouquet is soon to be constructed of short-blooming day lilies. Unfortunately, multiple romantic relationships — whether married or dating — and the termination of those relationships have become part of our cultural evolution. Since we have not yet found a cure for this epidemic, we must create a way to not only survive, but thrive in this reality.

In our world, where we pride ourselves on innovative disposability and always trading up for the latest model, have we come to think of people and what they have brought to our lives as discardable as well? Has our reality has been expanded to include acceptance that relationships may not be built to last?

The question then, is: what meaning can we find in relationships that did not last? We must find a different way to look at those people who we previously loved. Sprayed with a mist of obsolescence, our loved ones appear to have diminished value. Because of the impermanence of relationships, many find it unwise to allow themselves to be really vulnerable with others. When we are guarding our vulnerability, it becomes more difficult to attach, but it is vulnerability that promotes attachment.

Ultimately, there may be a part of ourselves that we hold back in a relationship. Without the mortar of intrinsic worth, many of today’s relationships seem to be built out of Lego blocks that may be snapped together or pulled apart at will. Believing that our mate’s value lies only in his or her present functionality to us, we measure people’s worth only in terms of current value. How, then, do we treasure our time on earth if relationships are only fragmented and episodic, and have not been woven into the big picture of our lives? In a world of replaceability, we have begun stripping away a whole layer of human-relationship value that gives our life meaning and spiritual connectedness.

The platinum emotion of love can turn into tomorrow’s waste material. We are all in peril of being looked at with the glint of expendability in our beloved’s eye. With the increasing number of multiple broken relationships, we have all accumulated a landfill of human memories that can be either relegated to waste or productively recycled. The only way to redeem this landfi ll is to upgrade the value of its contents from toxic to timeless.

No matter whose idea it was to breakup it is a painful process. The search then is not only for how to live and weather the turmoil, but how to make sense of it. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “What really makes one indignant about suffering isn’t the thing itself, but the senselessness of it.”

As with many life experiences we ask ourselves, what purpose does this serve? As long as we see the past relationship as senseless, it is eviscerating. If we see the relationship only in terms of its ending, we can loose all of the lessons and benefits that it contained. The relationship was the whole pie, the ending is only the crust. Learning from love and the pain of the disintegration of that love is a valuable use of our time alive.

Our view of our past loves should include the knowledge that one of the purposes of relationships is learning. When that experience changes and we move to the next phase of our lives we can choose to look upon that as a living rebirth rather than the death of something. If we focus only on the negative, and have used that strategy as a way to detach so many experiences can be missed — the main ones being the benefits and life-enhancing experiences from our past loves. When we put the good memories in cold storage we may also miss the good qualities that we want to look for in the next relationship.

As a society, we have embraced all things green. We now abhor waste. We recycle everything from cell phones to the cardboard core inside a roll of paper towels — and we think twice before we throw something away. Are past relationships the one area of life exempted from the concept of recycling?

Are we so obsessed with hiding evidence of this so-called failure that we have no choice but to throw out the good with the bad? Must we ready to exclude a former love from any further purpose? Recycling is a philosophy — that in everything there is further pur pose and possibility.

Past relationship creates an expansive field of memories, effervescently rich with the potential to fertilize our new life. Keeping alive good recollections ensures that our arteries will carry those memories to our heart, so that our heart will not be deprived of nourishment from our past. We know that love can die when the present. Our choice is to tell ourselves that our relationship was always depleted, or that there were, at least for a time, the creation of valuable nutrients we can still use.

Memory is not only part of the past, it is alive in us now. If its interpretation is negative, it has the potential for self-laceration. You cannot annihilate these memories without also killing off meaningful parts of yourself. You must do something with these memories, as they remain in your bloodstream. When you accept that you have deposited parts of yourself in his or her soul, you can comfortably retrieve all the richness of your experiences, perhaps some pain but joy as well. The memories will have to be stored somewhere; the trick is to not store them in oblivion. Only in the gates of prison must the door behind you be sealed in order to move ahead.

Five suggestions for re-framing your love ghosts on Valentines Day.

  1. Consider the good that was brought into your life from that past relationship, perhaps call or send that person a note and thank them.

  2. If you have stayed friendly with your former mate tell them you are proud that you navigated the breakup successfully to friendship.

  3. If you still have conflict tell them on this day you only are focusing on the good.

  4. If you have wronged someone from a past relationship give them an apology. The apology is not dependant upon what they also did wrong, but you received the benefits of releasing yourself from that ruminating thought of ‘due and owing.’ You can move on with the rest of your life without having unfinished business.

  5. Make a list of past relationships and write down next to each one the best qualities of that relationship. Now you have identified what qualities you want in the next relationship.

  6. Make a list of the negative parts of that relationship using them as a base line for what you don’t want to repeat, not as a basis for anger and resentment. Using the list only as a learning tool. Even these negative parts may have been your greatest teacher. Now that is a valentine!

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Posted: 11/03/2010 10:02 am EDT | Updated: 11/17/2011 9:02 am EST

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