Overcoming Past Relationship Issues That Hold Us Back

There’s no way around it, we are — at least in part — a product of our past relationship experiences, and now the failures of yesterday haunt the expectations of our tomorrow.

But hold on a minute. What if instead of demonizing our inner devils we come to terms with them by having them work for us?

The bigger they come the harder they fall

The premise of this line of reasoning is that the more we invest in a relationship, the more we give of ourselves, the greater the “inevitable” betrayal of our hope will ultimately be. Why bother if it all comes to naught in the end?

Statistically speaking there is reason to believe our inner cynic is right when 20% of marriages end in 5 years, and a full 48% don’t make it to twenty (and let’s not forget that these statistics are far couples who were determined enough to make the commitment to begin with). However, while this is clearly a very real, and understandable concern, especially off the raw tail-end of a failed romance, let’s not forget that — again, statistically speaking — the majority of marriages make the distance!

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any one of us is bound to find Mr or Mrs Right. There are no certainties, but this is precisely why we not should give up, because while it is true that it may all be for nothing, it is also true that there’s a chance it isn’t. Isn’t that an off-chance worth fighting for?

So, the key here is making our inescapable cynicism work for us, rather than against us. From an evolutionary perspective pain, fear and doubt have a distinct and useful purpose. They allow us to predict and avoid unmistakably damaging scenarios — scenarios that we’d fall into again, and again if we were fueled only by a naive kind of hope.

The only problem, of course, is that if we don’t keep an eye out for our irrational fears, they risk prejudging potentially positive outcomes (such as negatively stereotyping potential dates).

If kept on a tight leash, our cynicism can mean not taking romantic conquests for granted in the present, because we know fully well that it could end at any given time.

Some may feel that cynicism is detrimental to relationship health. I disagree. Knowing it may all end (again, it might not) is partly what makes it so special. It is what keeps us on our toes, makes the adrenaline flow and appreciate the moment for what it is. An experience that doesn’t hinge on an outcome.

Dealing with trust issues

If we’ve had our hopes betrayed, or if we’ve been repeatedly lied to and deceived, we can come to realize that no matter how charming or straight-laced a partner appears to be in the present, it may all be a carefully crafted illusion.

The result?

An enduring and frustrating tendency to prejudge situations and communication negatively. Even if we are fully aware that we may well be damaging something that is genuinely of value to us. Admittedly, a certain level of distrust will mean that you are capable of dodging the odd bullet or two, but is it worth the trade-off? Is it worth jeopardizing something that may have worked? And that decision is, of course, entirely yours to make (and no, I don’t mean that sarcastically).

I would suggest that there are two ways of approaching the problem. The first is that of learning to actively quantify the role of fear in our decision-making (attempting to make objective romantic decisions based on evidence, rather than fear), and the second is simply attempting to surrender unconditionally to the realization that despite our best efforts it may well occur, and there’s nothing we can realistically do to prevent it (thus making the exercise of overly guarding ourselves from hurt redundant as well as damaging).

This is all well and good, however it bears remembering that not all trust issues stem from direct relationship experience. Deep-seated trust issues can also stem from:

  • Abuse and neglect.
  • Social rejection.
  • Post-traumatic stress.
  • Psychological disorders such as depression or schizophrenia.

It goes without saying that I am wholly unsuited to discussing adequate therapy for these case examples, and that your best bet is professional counseling.

Fear of infidelity

When it comes to specific past relationship issues, the fear of infidelity ranks as one of the most common and complex. As noted by the above disclaimer, I’m going to assume that should you fear infidelity, it is not linked to motives that are outside of the span of your relationship experiences (and this goes for the rest of the article as well). In this case, you are fearful because you were cheated on, and cannot stomach it happening again.

So, how do we turn this fear on it’s head? It’s simple; we don’t.

While we cannot control someone else’s desires, impulses or actions, there are things, in my mind, that make the chance of infidelity more common than it otherwise would be. To tackle the problem backwards, if we allow our fear of infidelity to cage the relationship behind iron-cast bars (limiting freedom of movement, fretting over time apart, e.t.c), we logically make it more likely to occur because our natural reaction is to want to break free from entrapment and allow our temptations to roam. Much in the same way that making something a taboo also tends to make it more desirable to many.

It is unquestionably ironic that it is our attempt to stave off infidelity that empowers it, but there you have it. Obviously, giving our partners free rein (with reasonable relationship barriers) does not always guarantee a relationship free of infidelity, sometimes your trust is an open invitation for exploitation, but in the main I would argue that it certainly does help.

Getting cold feet

In this case it isn’t the fear of being deceived that haunts us, in this case, and in the words of Walter White;  “I am the danger”.

The first question to ask ourselves is whether our fear is unreasonable. A reasonable fear is one that seriously weighs whether or not we are settling our romantic futures into a glum and dreary future. Sometimes it is guilt of letting someone we genuinely care about down that allows the negotiations to continue this far — knowing fully well that the eventuality is very likely off the table.

In any case we simply cannot allow mercy to enter the equation here by prematurely committing to a relationship that we know isn’t going to pan out, because it is detrimental not only to our happiness, but that of our partner as well, no matter how much saying “no” will hurt them in the present.

Unreasonable fears, doubts driven by uncertainty, are also — despite the name — very reasonable (unless it is a recurring issue). Commitment is a brutal taskmaster to the half-hearted, and no matter which way we cut it, a slice of our future contentment is on the line here.

On a personal note, I believe that commitment should progress naturally, and that if any stage of a relationship feels like a leap rather than a step, it is a sign that something is broken, or that at the very least you and your partner are on different pages of the same relationship novel.

While there is no realistic way to control a relationship, due to the fact that it is a union of separate expectations, its relative tempo should be something you have a large part in deciding. If you feel pressured, or made promises with regards to moving forward, it bears remembering that you cannot influence the way you feel about commitment, no matter how you felt yesterday, the day before or in the heat of the moment, and thus should not feel guilty about prolonging the proceedings (or discarding them entirely) and achieving a rhythm you are fundamentally comfortable with.

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