And stop having old fights with new partners.

Romantic love inspires powerful, warm feelings when things are going well, and painful, horrible ones when things aren’t. This happens because we are emotionally vulnerable with an intimate partner: We put our hearts and egos on the line. Yet intimate relationships don’t always go the way we want, which can leave us with complicated feelings like sadness, grief, anger, guilt, and resentment. We often find ourselves replaying old conversations and scenes with an ex-lover, or our family members, while wishing we could have a second chance—and a new outcome.

As I describe in Why Can't You Read My Mind?, once a relationship has ended, you need time to move through your feelings and reach a resolution. Negative feelings need to be expressed in a healthy way. I often advise clients to write letters to their ex-partner. These letters are not meant to be mailed, but are for purging the thoughts and feelings that still remain. (One client wrote 26 letters before she could let go. But then she did let go.

Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, nationally recognized relationship expert, and executive coach. He has over 27 years experience providing child, adolescent, couples, and family counseling. Dr. Bernstein conducts seminars and public speaking events on child/teen development, self-esteem, addictions, self-mutilation, ADHD, learning disabilities, discipline, difficult children, parenting issues, personal wellness

Editor: Saad Shaheed

Anger is usually the most identifiable and pronounced emotion when a relationship ends. You must keep in mind that underneath anger are usually feelings of hurt, fear, sadness, and shame. Once the anger has passed, sadness may dominate, and these feelings need to be dealt with as well. Feelings of regret also need to be worked through so that you don’t cling to the hope that your partner will magically return, all new and improved. In most cases, with the passage of time and some emotional work, you are left with the sense that your relationship happened as it should have; that you learned from the experience; and that you’re ready to move on, hopeful that a better partner and relationship will soon come along.

Unfortunately, most people skip a great deal of this process. Hurting and wanting to feel better, they rush into new relationships too quickly, not realizing that the emotional remains of the past are not easily avoided. And then one day a new lover does something remarkably similar to an ex, triggering a chain of emotional reactions. Even though this new partner is different, the feelings are the same, and it’s understandable that reactions will be as well.

Picture the following scenario: Elaine's father was an alcoholic. Her former husband, Kevin, also drank heavily and would often arrive home drunk. This led to many upsetting nights, usually ending with an argument and Kevin passing out. Later, he would be defensive, and resentment on both sides escalated until the marriage ended.

Now Elaine is seeing Steve, who rarely drinks and then only in small quantities. One night, he entertained clients from work at dinner, had a drink with them, and then went to Elaine’s. The minute she saw him, Elaine smelled the alcohol on his breath and was immediately flooded with panic, fear, and anger: “He’s going to end up like Kevin.“ “He should know I can’t stand him drinking." Even though Elaine knows this is a different relationship, her unconscious mind has already registered the trigger, and the feelings from her past relationships come flooding back. If she’s not careful, she will find herself picking a fight with Steve, reacting to him as she used to react to Kevin.

Or consider this example: Tim began being overly critical of his wife Barbara's weight. He very much respected Barbara, but still replayed memories of his old girlfriend Janet, who had told him he was overweight and not very good in bed. Tim carried around this ghost of feeling inadequate with women ever since. The ghost appeared in the form of disdainful thoughts about the physical attributes of subsequent women he became involved with, including Barbara. Tim and I took a closer look at the damage he had suffered from Janet’s negative comments. He had idealized her as “perfect,“ which left him seeing the women in his subsequent relationships as physically inadequate.  

Refuse to Be a Victim of Your Emotional Ghosts

There is nothing wrong with wanting to avoid facing the emotional pain of your past. Avoidance may feel like the right thing to do, but facing your ghosts is the best way to move forward. Get rid of the idea that you have no control over your emotional baggage—because you absolutely do. Following are three tips to help you move beyond your past relationship ghosts:

1. Acknowledge your emotional ghosts.

This is not about blaming your parents, girlfriend, boyfriend, ex-husband, old friends, or anyone else. And it is not that these individuals necessarily actually abused you. Whatever the extent of the dysfunctional behaviors and patterns you have been exposed to, you must remember that you are the one in control—not the ghost. Indeed, either you control the emotional ghost or it controls you. No one else who can help you with this. Blaming another person for doing something to you can make you feel like a victim. But if you stay a victim, you could be doomed to repeat negative behaviors or perpetuate negative attitudes indefinitely.

2. Accept responsibility for what happened.

Say to yourself (or the other person, if appropriate), “I allowed myself to fall prey to your negative ideas and toxic thoughts about me. But I will not allow you to control me anymore.“ We can all move on and grow. An ex may have told that you were not good enough, but that does not mean you have to imagine your current partner is impossible to please. Just because you were ostracized as a teen by classmates when you came out as gay does not mean that you cannot find acceptance and love as an adult. You can overcome your ghosts, no matter what baggage they use to haunt you. 

3. Differentiate yourself from your ghosts by listing how you are different from them.

Embrace the qualities that others value in you. Was your mother angry? Take note of how you are different. Remind yourself that she was angry because her father died and her family had few financial resources, so she ended up caring for her seven siblings. Your life is different—your partner lost his job and you were supportive, not angry; or your daughter spilled soda on the couch and you started to get angry, but caught yourself in a way your mother would not have been capable of.

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