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Illustration by Marta Pucci

My Past Relationship is Interfering my Current One. What To Do?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
9/22/2022
Last updated:
9/22/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
9/22/2022
Last updated:
9/22/2022

TL;DR

  • It’s very common to realize that, despite being in a new romantic relationship, we may not have achieved complete closure on the old one.
  • This could be because we have residual trauma from a toxic partnership, but it can just as likely be unresolved emotion and negative patterns.
  • We are humans not machines. It is very hard to recognize and change patterns of behavior, hence we may find them following us into future relationships.
  • In order to move forwards and become free of these patterns, it’s important to work on understanding where these feelings and behaviors come from.

When one door closes another one opens… that’s what they say, isn’t it?

With romantic relationships, it’s often the case that as we leave one partnership we find a new one to invest our energies in. The trouble is that it’s all too common for that first ‘door’ to remain slightly ajar as we enter the next relationship. As though caught on the mat, perhaps. Allowing echoes of life with our previous partners to come slipping through.

Why does the past come back to haunt our current relationship?

In a study looking at partnership and family dynamics among a subset of the German population(1), researchers found that although some relationship dynamics may change, “you are still the same person and so likely recreate many of the same patterns in future relationships”. Just because you’re starting a new relationship doesn’t automatically guarantee that things will be different.

Of course, the honeymoon period may lull us into a false sense of security. But remember, those early months of a relationship do not paint a real picture of what is to come. In the flush of a new relationship, we tend to set aside the household admin and chores and even keep our children out of it for a while. This means we’re free to get to know one another without the ties that regularly cause rifts to develop.

It's once things settle down into ‘normal life’ that we see patterns begin to emerge. We are, after all, humans not machines. We can’t turn off feelings or change our fundamental behaviors without putting in some serious work.

And nor should we expect our partners to be able to.

Does this only happen with bad relationships?

While it’s perhaps more common that the memory of a traumatic experience in a past relationship, or particularly difficult relationship dynamics, will stick with you, it’s not always the case. Generally, healthy relationships can still suffer from some unhealthy patterns of behavior too. Perhaps one partner struggled with defensiveness whenever conflict<link to Batch 14.2, blog 1> arose, perhaps relationship anxiety was present on both sides, or maybe you just felt insecure.

When we come out of an intimate relationship, it’s easy to take negative associations with us into a new partnership. Yes, this could include recovery from a toxic or abusive relationship, but it doesn’t need to. Any relationship that ends can leave you with emotional ‘baggage’ that may result in trust issues. Particularly if you feel like this isn’t the first time.

Should we assume, when going into a new relationship, that it will be the same old same old when it comes to our partner’s behavior? No. But we also have to recognize that our own behaviors may need some attention in order for things to turn out differently.

So what can you do to improve things with your current partner?

If you’re stuck going over your previous relationship, wondering what went wrong. If you’re feeling anxious about your new relationship going the same way as your previous one. Or if it’s happened so many times you’re starting to doubt your ability to sustain a healthy relationship at all. Know there is hope.

It may take some time, bravery and a determination to put in the effort, but there are ways to work through what’s happened in the past, recognize unhealthy patterns and move forward:

1. Process the feelings that are swirling around in your head

Start a journal to record your thoughts, write a letter to your ex to explain how you feel – even if you know you’ll never send it. If you’re more of a talker, look into individual therapy to see if a professional counsellor could help.

2. Try to recognize negative patterns that keep cropping up

Think back to previous relationships, not simply the one you’ve just come out of. Look into the reasons you used to fight, how you felt, the niggles that were present and the reason you broke up. Try to avoid an emotional reaction. Just calmly record everything and then look for patterns.

3. Identify the symptoms you display that tend to impact your relationships

Unless you get to the bottom of what is going on, you’ll never be able to do anything about it. So really go deep inside yourself and give yourself the honesty you deserve. Do you tend towards avoidance when things get tough, pushing your partner away? Do you experience wild feelings of jealousy that you struggle to contain?

4. Can you work out where those symptoms stem from?

Your avoidance might come from feelings of being hurt in the past. Jealousy might be down to trust issues. Has someone given you a reason to be like that? Did a previous romantic partner abuse your trust? Think back and get everything down.

5. Take control of your symptoms

This can be tricky to work through on your own. Many people will find that a relationship therapist or individual counsellor can really help speed this process along. But regardless, the key here is to try to gain perspective on whether your feelings are rational.

Just because something has happened before, is it likely to happen again? Are there any signals that your partner is behaving in a problematic way? Is there anything you could do to change your own behavior to avoid the issue recurring? Make a plan.

6. Make a decision and talk to your partner

If the issue is that you still have unresolved feelings for your previous partner, make a decision about whether to pursue these. Do you still want to be in a relationship with them or do you commit to being fully in the present with your current partner?

Then talk to your partner.

Be honest and tell them all of the feelings you’ve been working through. Not only will you find this a relief but it will also help them to understand and support you going forwards. Plus, truly opening up is all part of building greater trust in a committed relationship.

Remember, just because you felt it was time to take a relationship break, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to jump straight into the next. Sometimes the best antidote is to give yourself time to rediscover yourself and work on yourself outside of a relationship. Then once you’re ready to get back in there, maybe consider a casual relationship or two to get you started.

There may be more benefits that you think.

1. Johnson, M. D., & Neyer, F. J. (2019). (Eventual) stability and change across partnerships. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(6), 711–721.
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