Ghosts of the past haunt my relationship

I can't stop thinking about my ex and what he got away with

Published November 9, 2011 12:59AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hello Cary,

I'm writing because I feel like I'm going crazy. I dated a man for about five years. We were engaged the last year of our relationship and also living together. However, I ended it very abruptly when I found out he had been cheating on me in various ways with many different women. I had had my suspicions, and when I talked to him about it he told me I was acting paranoid and jealous and just being overall ridiculous.

However, the suspicious feelings got so bad that I hacked into his computer one weekend while he was on a business trip. I found evidence that he had indeed been cheating on me for some time, even talking bad about me to some of the women he was with. Even his so-called business trip was a weekend tryst with a woman he had met on Craigslist. To make a long, painful story short, I ended it, moved out of the apartment we shared, and several months later he moved across the country for graduate school and we haven't kept in touch.

It's five years later, and I've been lucky enough to have found a wonderful man who makes me happy. We have been together about two years now, and I have never really had those bad, suspicious feelings I had with my ex. However, the past several months I've been remembering a lot of the stuff my ex and I did together, happy memories as well as painful ones. I still live in the same city where we spent all those years together, and lately everywhere I turn I feel like I'm running into ghosts. I considered moving, but I'd be giving up a great job and a great life that I have built for myself here. I've been able to just shake off these creepy feelings until recently. Thanks to social networking and a mutual friend, I saw photos of my ex's recent wedding. I had no idea he was getting married and feel like I should not care. But when I saw those photos it felt like someone had punched me in the gut! I had a minor panic attack at my desk at work. Since then, memories of him continue to flood back tenfold. Everywhere I go in my city I'm surrounded by memories that just feel painful. But what's even more concerning is that I am starting to feel those old suspicious feelings again about my current boyfriend. I find myself analyzing what he says for inconsistencies, and if something is just slightly off I jump on it and give him the third degree. And I remain suspicious despite what he says.

Certain situations will come up that remind me of one of my ex's betrayals and my mind just reverts back to that time and I have trouble disassociating my ex with my current boyfriend. I've told my boyfriend about this even though I was scared he would take it the wrong way. He was great about it. He told me he understood, but that I have to remember that things are better now, and I have to let it go.

Which I know must happen, because this is so unfair to him, and I know he is getting frustrated. On top of being this highly suspicious person, I'm cranky and irritable and these horrible feelings are surfacing that are getting taken out on him. I just feel so angry at my ex, like he left this awful scar on me and he totally got away with it! I'm also angry with myself for letting this affect me so much. It's like I had him buried in my head all these years and seeing his wedding photos just resurrected him along with all of these toxic feelings. So my question is, how do I get beyond these terrible feelings? How do I let go of these ghosts and move on?

Spooked and Suspicious

Dear Spooked and Suspicious,

I wish I knew. When I started this job over 10 years ago I started out knowing I didn't have all the answers. My vow was to just share my own experience. My experience with being haunted by past relationships has been that it's often painful and hard to control. You see a picture of someone and everything comes back. You try to shake it but it keeps coming up.

Now I do know a few things. I know that forgiveness can help.

Try it. Just try to forgive him. Even trying will help.

And, much as it is a cliché, time also helps. It gives us distance. Stuff does change without our effort. It does. It does take time.

I'm not saying just wait it out. There are things you can do. You can improve other areas of your life. You can meditate to quiet the mind. You can look for a philosophy of living, do meaningful work, do yoga and exercise. We do these things to try to get some quiet space in the mind. It's like a storm comes up in the mind and we try to weather it.

It's also been my experience that you can be more susceptible to these unpleasant emotions when you are run down emotionally or spiritually. Are other stressful things going on that you didn't mention? Family worries or work problems? Sometimes current issues we're not aware of at first turn out to be connected, in our minds, to events from the past.

Also, you might ask what is going on in your current relationship that is causing you to feel distrustful? Are you sure it's all in your head? Maybe your style of communicating with your boyfriend is not radically honest enough; you and he probably have social habits of evasion that are completely consonant with contemporary mores. There may be little things you haven't been telling each other that undermine your sense of total security with him. You may need greater assurances from him. He may need the same from you. See what you can do to strengthen this relationship in this period of anxiety. See if there are things you've been holding back from him. Get ridiculously honest.

And again, think about acceptance and forgiveness. Think of it as untying knots. Regardless of what your ex did, your problem is that you're still tied to him. It's like you're pulling your ex along behind you in a wagon.

So picture yourself turning around and untying the knot that ties his wagon to you. It doesn't matter what he did. He's still a weight on you. Just let go of that wagon. What he does afterward is not your responsibility. Concentrate on untying that knot. It may be a big, complicated knot. It may be a simple knot. Untie it and let that wagon go.

That can help.

So to sum up, I'd say that, to be completely honest, I don't have a pat answer. It's complicated and I'm not God. I'm due at my psychiatrist's office in an hour and a half. I meditate and seek serenity and think and read books and try to be honest and still my mind is a tangle of unwanted thoughts and fears. That seems to be much of how life is. I've been through similar things and the things I mention are the things I've  found that helped. Try meditating, exercising and eating well. Pay attention to your current relationship. Work on it. Look at your life for unusual stress.

And finally, untie the knot that connects your ex's wagon to you. Stop pulling his wagon around with you. Turn him loose and let his wagon roll down the hill.

By Cary Tennis

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