Conflicts — 14 August 2008
Overcoming painful memories of former love relationships

Some partners complain about paying for the “sins” of their current mate’s former partner’s behavior. They resent the attribution of the negative conduct or intent to them that their partner endured in a previous love relationship. They may say, “Why do you assume that I will mistreat you this way, I am not him and do not appreciate being treated as though I were him”.

The partners, who expect to receive the same undesirable behavior they were familiar with in their past, are aware that they are with a new and different mate, but can not sufficiently clear the memory of previous hurts to feel safe enough in the current relationship.

Why is it that we allow our past to impact our present in a way that appears to be counter-productive? Why would we store negative memories and reattribute them to a new seemingly innocent lover? Does it mean that we have become permanently soured about love mates? Would we not be better served to forget the hurtful past and become fully available to the new relationship with openness and trust?

The answer to these questions is that we are better off not assigning blame to one person for the transgressions of another, but are neurologically programmed to remember experiences that evoke strong emotions, both pain and pleasure, for our survival. Dr. James McGaugh, a University of California neurobiologist states, “ We remember our embarrassments, our failures, our fender benders”. The major purpose of memory is to predict the future.” It assists us in survival – decreasing pain and perpetuating pleasure.

Research in imaging, measuring the brain activity during emotionally-charged states, documented that our bodies first release adrenaline and cortisol hormones that speed up our responses, as they trigger the amygdala in our brain to release norepinephrine which puts the body on high alert and also produces memory recordings. Both threatening and pleasurable experiences such as eating and sex are recorded. The first serves to protect us, the second to perpetuate the species.

When individuals wish to erase their old painful memories, they find it difficult to do so, because of their survival value. Learning to guard oneself from repeated physical or verbal abuse is healthy and is maintained by not forgetting the original trauma. Also, the same mechanism that records the unhappy events appears to be the one that also registers pleasure that may be worth recalling.

The experience of rehearsing traumatic events such as war memories, accidents and other life-threatening trauma commonly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not covered in this column. Their purpose and treatment are more complex than relationship memories.

Yet, there are ways to use the recalled painful relationship history without negatively impacting your current love connection:

• Remember that your mind and body are there to protect you – not to harm a positive relationship. Your memories are private and may better serve you by being your guidelines and not being repeatedly discussed with your mate.
• Remind yourself that you are now with a better mate who is different from the previous one. List for yourself the clear distinctions between the old and new partner.
• Just as physical pain serves to alert you that your body needs healing, emotional pain is the cue for the need for emotional recovery. If you are not able to achieve the proper perspective alone, seek professional help.

For partners of those recalling other relationship experiences:

• Understand that your mate’s assumptions about your intend or conduct is a protective mechanism not intended to offend you.
• Avoid getting hurt and angry when you are assumed to have repeated another person’s undesirable style. Instead, provide understanding and compassion for your mate’s old pain and reassure your partner of your love for him/her.
• Compassion and acceptance tend to reduce the frequency of your partner attributing another’s behavior and intent to you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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