Ghosts of Relationships Past

There’s an ad on TV at the moment for a fabric freshener in which a garlic clove and a fish are hanging around the house and are eliminated with a spray of this wonder product. If only it were so easy to eliminate the odours of past relationships!

We are all the product of our experiences and the meanings we have made of them, and while we may not be aware of it, how we relate in the present has much to do with what has gone on in those previous relationships.

We absorb our values and beliefs at an unconscious level growing up. These include our beliefs about every aspect of life, about people, about money, about health, about expectations and more. These are often so ingrained that we are not aware that they are beliefs, but may consider them to be facts. Take health for example. Some years ago I worked with a man who had a family history of heart disease. He used to say that no male for several generations in his family had lived past the age of 60. He believed it to be a fact that he too would not live past sixty, and took little care of his health as a result, saying there was no point as he was going to die at an early age anyway. His belief took no account of changing life styles, or advances in medicine, or that he was different from others who had gone before him.

The way our families relate to each other as we grow up becomes our model for future relationships too. For example, if gender roles were very clearly divided in our family, we may come to our adult relationships with similar expectations. If we had a father who was hard working and provided well for the family, but expected his wife to do everything in the home and with the children, we may find ourselves attracted to similar or opposite traits in later life. If we grew up believing that because our mother was critical, that we weren’t good enough, we may find ourselves attracting criticism in the work place or from our spouse.

In my work, when I ask people to finish the sentence “Men are…” or “Women are…” it’s amazing what they say. They are often surprised with what comes to them, to realise that they believe, for example, that men can’t be trusted, are irresponsible, or can’t talk about their feelings, or that women are devious and manipulative, or can’t change a tyre or read a map. Undoubtedly some women and men do display these characteristics, but it is not a rule. Unconsciously, we may have absorbed beliefs that because this was what we experienced growing up, that all men, or all women are the same. And because that is what we expect to see, we may be blind to all the other men and women who aren’t like that.

Love relationships that haven’t worked out can often leave their scars in subtle ways. We may be cautious about committing ourselves again, sabotaging any potential chance of future happiness. We may tell ourselves stories about how we just can’t find the “right” person, or how “all the good ones are gone.” We may believe that we are unlovable because we are fat, thin, tall, short, ugly, pretty, scary, angry, boring and so on. We can find endless reasons why we might not be attractive to others. Rarely do we recognise that it is not that others see us that way that prevents us from finding a relationship that works, but that at some deep level we don’t want it to work (because of the fear that we may be hurt.) I should stress that much of this goes on beneath the surface.

How we perceived our parents relating with each other may also be a model for what we expect in life. If our parents were loving and caring towards each other, then that will give us a positive model for what we might expect. If on the other hand, they were cold, or angry, or dismissive with each other, or with us, or clearly stayed together out of obligation and duty, at a deep level we may fear making a commitment to any relationship, in case it repeats the pattern. We may consciously want to attract a relationship that will work for us, but our unconscious fear may lead us to sabotage any chance we might have.

In his book, Radical Forgiveness, Making Room for the Miracle, Colin Tipping provides a clear and straightforward explanation of how we take our unconscious fears about our own shortcomings and failings, and rather than seeing them in ourselves, project them onto those we come into contact with. Rather than blaming the other for their part, he says we have received a gift from those relationships we have most difficulty with. By highlighting where we may be acting out of past relationships, the most difficult situations give us an opportunity to identify, heal and transform our past hurts into a future of love and peace.

Colin has a series of processes for healing situations and relationships, with others or with ourselves. They are simple, practical and they work, whether you believe in them or not. None of them require you to condone or excuse the behaviour of others.

Each of the processes follows a similar pattern. The first steps are to tell the story, and to feel the feelings, and the hurt involved. Next the process looks at how our beliefs and judgements may be colouring how we are seeing the situation. (For example, if someone criticises something we have done, we may experience this as being rejected and interpret their comments as meaning that we are not good enough, rather than seeing their criticism as feedback that may help us improve.)

The next step is to reframe the story, by shifting our perception to the gift that may be in the situation (in the example above, the criticism may help us to heal an old wound of believing that we’re not good enough), or if we’re unable to see it, being willing to accept that the situation is for us, rather than against us. And finally, we integrate our new understanding into our body, usually through breathing or movement.

See his website for details, much of which is free of charge.

About judefay

Psychotherapist and counsellor with AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy ( EFT Practitioner Helping therapists and counsellors with the business side of running a practice (
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