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.

12 Comments Overcoming Past Relationship Issues That Hold Us Back

  1. Leigh

    Hi James,
    I stumbled on your site today after a very abrupt and painful breakup. I really appreciate your site.

    I appreciate your statement that commitments should progress naturally. What happens when both parties have been living together with one party keeping his place that he never goes to while both parties are extolling the virtues of what’s a great relationship, only to have my partner bail out in what looked like a panic attack when we actually started to talk about the logistics of a move? We were progressing at a mutually agreed upon rate and then poof, he flipped out and we are now no contact. I am heartbroken.

    Last winter, we discussed taking the temperature on things at a particular time and when we did that this spring, we both discussed how happy we were and how we both saw “we” in the future. We genuinely had great chemistry, rarely had differences of opinion, clicked intellectually on a consistent basis. Typical comment from him: “I am amazed that I can talk with you for hours and never get bored.” Or “I never thought I’d fall in love at this age and yet here I am and I am so grateful.” Or, when seeing an elderly couple walk by, he’d say “That’s going to be us in a few decades.” Yet a few weeks later, when I asked what we might be considering in more concrete terms, my partner began to fret about things like, “What happens if this doesn’t work out in five years?” When I attempted to reassure him and remind him that we have had a very sound and fulfilling relationship so far, that didn’t bring him any comfort. He continued to get increasingly anxious until he informed me this week that he wanted to stop seeing each other “for now” and that he feared leaving his (rented) home and the stability he had with neighbors he knew and so on.

    He is not a player. There is no doubt in my mind that he has gone to fear mode (lost his mom as a child,mast had any long term relationships before this one). I am stumped. He has insight into his stuff and has acknowledged it when he’s not in flight state.

    1. James NelmondoJames Nelmondo

      When I did a bit of background research on the topic of fear of commitment I did notice that the vast majority of scientific sources mentioned that for many, the fear itself as you alluded to, isn’t really connected to the relationship specifically. It might well be linked to an innate and instinctive fear of entrapment, responsibility, abandonment or a myriad of other deep-seated impulses. Having said all that, it sounds likely that he is simply fearing the inevitability of change. Of his various comforts, routines and safe zones. In the end, once the fear subsides, and he has safeguarded his “bat cave” he will have to weigh the relative benefit of short-term comfort against the hollowness he will inherent from a potential breakup. It doesn’t sound like he is willing to make a decision (which he is), given how he’s quick to add the “for now” part of the retreat. Nevertheless that particular event horizon is rushing towards him whether he likes it or not (if your connection was as fulfilling as you described, the loss will begin to eat away at his resolve, and he will want clarity, one way or the other).

    2. Anonymous

      You are great to reply so quickly. Thank you!

      So on my end, do you suggest I continue to do what I am doing? I’m leaving him in the bat cave and have not attempted to make contact.

      I vacillate between doing that (NC) but worrying that without any contact, he will forget what made him happy lull himself back into the world he said he was tired of living in (a fairly isolated existence).

      I naively heard things like “I’m taking a big risk but I’m ready to do it” early in the relationship, never presuming that anyone would actually bail on a great thing out of fear. The vast majority of our time was spent giggling, talking about life, experiencing great physical and intellectual chemistry. The day started with him grabbing the cup of coffee I made for him on the way out with a smile, followed by chat about our days while at work, dinner and a catch up when we got home, walks with the dogs or snickering over an old “Six Million Dollar Man” episode in bed. I’m blindsided, clearly want this to work, and wonder what you think I should do on my end. Thank you so much.

    3. James NelmondoJames Nelmondo

      Erm, wow, I actually thought I had answered this earlier, but for some reason it didn’t process and failed to appear on the blog. Sorry about that!

      I agree that there are risks both ways. NC can cement distance rather than reduce it, which is why I tend to argue that going NC is only really an option if it’s about our own detoxing first. Its emphasis is about gaining clarity, rather than reconciling. If not, I would settle for a less frenetic limited contact structure that will make it easier for him to reach out. In essence, I would make it clear that if he wants to talk about the relationship, he’s more than welcome to, but that shouldn’t mean he can just pop in now and again and get a temporary comfort fix at your expense (which is what being too communicatively open often leads to).

      It’s a delicate balance. He cannot take your affection for granted (otherwise he won’t begin to REALLY question what role you have in his life), but at the same time habit, pride and other factors can push reconciliation away in the name of comfort.

      Again, just an opinion, but I hope it helps! Best of luck.

    4. Anonymous

      Hi James,
      Well, I am back for another update/request for your insight. I have found so much excellent insight here. Thank you!
      I also woke up and made an appointment with a therapist because I’m really struggling and anxious right now. My resolve is fading fast.

      I did what we discussed and opened the door with a text asking after him and an email so that he didn’t see me as checking out completely. The email basically said I’m giving you space, but I am here. I went on to remind him of the many things he said to me about him taking a risk, including him texting a while back, “Going forward, I see “we”. It feels weird but I am sick and tired of running away from things because I (might) get hurt.” I assured him I was in his corner, gave him a lot of praise for taking the risk and acknowledged that I didn’t realize how significant some of these fears were for him.

      Lastly, I pointed out what happened when he did take the risk- we got a great relationship out of it. I encouraged him to remember those specific benefits that we both had as a result and I listed them.

      I have heard ZERO back.

      I have a house full of his things (I literally can’t imagine what he’s wearing to work unless he went out shopping). It has been a week and a half since he was here last and nearly a week since we’ve actually spoken. I’m doing my best to keep it together and I’m feeling very, VERY uncomfortable. This man does not have a mean bone in his body (friends and family concur), yet his behavior is so out of character from the man I knew. How could someone be SO cold? Is it possible that I’m going to be left with a closet full of his things and no discussion/explanation ever? He’s still on fb, nothing happening as usual, hasn’t defriended/blocked me (he’s not a big user but did post he had a good run yesterday- perfect day).

      I’m feeling pretty devastated.

    5. James NelmondoJames Nelmondo

      First of all, taking an appointment with a therapist is a great idea, and I applaud it. Since much of the breakup struggle revolves around breaking the denial paradigm, at least you accept that there is a problem, and are taking steps pro-actively to improve your life. Sorry to sound redundant I say this for the benefit of other readers as well (which is why I’m making such a point about it).

      How long has it been since you last heard from him? In a state of anxiety a day will feel like a month, but someone that feels a modicum of relief after a breakup (even if they don’t want to lose you) will have a very different conception of timing.

      Not to sound too obvious, but…did your message require an answer? From what you tell me, it seems more like a message of unilateral support, rather than a get-back-to-me. Perhaps he took it as a one-off message to keep in mind that did not require an answer. I know it’s usually implied that an answer of some sort be shot back, but perhaps he simply took it for food for thought.

      The feeling of not knowing who you’re dealing with is typical, and frankly it was what shocked me the most about my last breakup. I believe I even told her that it felt like she died and nobody invited me to the funeral (a little bleak, I’ll grant you, but you know what I mean). The reason I believe this is so typical is that right until the day the breakup occurs we assume we are on the same page to some extent, whereas in actuality an internal rift occurred well before the decision actually took place. The breakup just reflects this internal change externally because co-responsibility it now out of the window. Added to which, the dent in routine communication will obviously catalyze further doubt and distance, and so our limited access to what our ex partners are thinking absolutely gives the impression they are someone else entirely.

      Is this your case? I can’t be sure. Nor can I be sure whether or not he’s willing to leave all his things at your house. I doubt it though. Chances are they will provide a point of future contact, even if they weren’t planted there with that in mind. I wish I could be of more help, but I absolutely don’t want to over-analyze (which tends to do more harm than good) what seems like an already delicate situation.

  2. Leigh

    Thanks so much!
    He has a whole bunch of things here (closet full of clothes, etc.). It’s been a little over a week since he was here and four days since we’ve talked. I think I’ll give him a few days and see whether he reaches out about his things. I’m assuming his clothing, running gear, etc. are in essence crumbs he’s leaving behind purposefully.

    I’m thankful for your opinion.

  3. Leigh

    James, you are very good at this. I hope you keep it up.

    You asked a few questions in your reply that I will answer now.

    I didn’t ask him to get back with me in my email from last weekend. It was definitely more of a “I’m here, I know you’re dealin g with a lot, so am I, don’t quit.” It has been a week since we spoke via phone, nearly two weeks since he was here last (and had been here nightly for months).

    James, I can relate entirely to what you said about your breakup above. It is SO out of character for this man to disappear. Those who know him have said that he does not have a mean bone in his body, and he doesn’t. Yet the stonewalling is beginning to feel very mean and very purposeful and it is indeed making me a nervous wreck when I am typically pretty stable and positive in outlook. At a loss.

    1. James NelmondoJames Nelmondo

      Leigh, thank you for your kind words.

      I just wanted to point out that while I may not know whether or not he is stonewalling purposefully or not, there are two different strands of logic here that I think need to be considered.

      You state that you are typically pretty stable and positive, yet admit that the current situation makes you a nervous, anxious wreck. I think we agree that, objectively speaking, given the situation, this is entirely natural. However, you seem to hold him to a different logical standard (I’m not judging, just trying to be as objective as possible).

      What I mean by this is that you base much of your confusion and anxiety on the fact that he does not seem to act or behave in a way that makes sense to you, given your history (and as I’ve mentioned, I know exactly how tortuous that is). Now, for the same reason that I find your anxiety and stress natural, I also find his disappearing act (intentional or not) also natural. It may well be, just like yours, a reaction to a stressful situation. The resulting trauma means that you are both molded by the situation in different ways, and may well be (temporarily) different people.

      Call me cynical if you will. But I put it past nobody to break they own character paradigm, particularly in the wake of a difficult decision. Again, I may very well be wrong, and I often am, however I thought I’d throw that out there.

  4. Leigh

    Excellent insight. We saw each other last night. Had dinner at a park, talked for three hours about lots of things, held hands and things got calm and more like us. As we got to our cars, we kissed and hugged and said our I love yous. Then he looked at me and said “I can’t offer any guarantees ” and I said of course. Let’s take it a day at a time. I am here and it’s a process.

    He called me an hour later and broke it off permanently. Was very upset, said he couldn’t get past the “ultimatum” I’d given regarding living together (there was no ultimatum and I’ve repeatedly said I’m happy being with him in whatever way he could manage right now). I tried very hard to talk him off the cliff but he was hell bent on jumping, even though he acknowledged it was back to the batcave, probably for good since this was the first long-term relationship he’d had in decades. .

    Very sad.

    1. James NelmondoJames Nelmondo

      Genuinely sorry to hear it Leigh. Though I suppose it’s better to know than to live in a state of perpetual anxiety (not that this will entirely rub away hope, of course). I don’t want to open a pathway to confusion, but you seem pretty level-headed, so I’ll add that ultimatums (his) don’t align with the ups and downs, comings and goings of feelings (which naturally fluctuate), so I wouldn’t burn my bridges just yet, though I would pull back and away and focus on other aspects of life.

      Best of luck!

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