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Why Some People Can't Let Go of Past Relationships

Why we ruminate about some people and not others.

Key points

  • Some people struggle to move on from past relationships, even years later.
  • Accepting the facts of the situation and letting the intensity of the memories fade can help people move on from past relationships.
  • The attachment styles people can form may sometimes influence how they respond to breakups.
Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
Source: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Let's say it has been over a year since your friend’s last break up and he still can’t stop talking about his ex. He ruminates about how he could have done things differently, how she led him to believe she loved him, and how she turned around and ended it. You do your best to stay present and supportive for your friend. And you never even tell him about your own long-standing heartaches.

Even though decades have passed, sometimes, when you are lying alone late at night, or lying half asleep in the morning, your mind still goes there. You remember the intensity of your emotions, the extreme attraction you felt, and the depths of your despair when it ended. So, there you lie… a brokenhearted 16-year-old in a 40-year-old’s body. You can’t help but wonder if that teenager was the one you were supposed to be with.

So, why can’t you let it go? Why are you still affected by distal events that seep into your present-day emotional experience? You have had other loves and heartaches. Some you simply let fade away into the background. You rarely revisit those. So, what is the difference?

The answer may reside in how you process emotions in terms of your attachment style, your attachment-based expectations for the future, and how your emotions interact with your memory system.

If you are just being exposed to the concept of attachment styles, you can read more here. The key point is that those with secure attachment styles have strong emotion regulation skills, can appreciate the good the bad and the ugly in others (they don’t do absolutes), and have general positive outcome expectations; in other words, they believe that love will always be available and there will always be people around to support them. When relationships are going well, they don’t exaggerate their positive emotions. They simply enjoy the goodness of the moment and take it in stride. By extension, when things go bad, they are not crushed or devastated by negative emotions. Because they believe that there will always be supportive people and the availability of love, they do not hold the belief that they must intersect with that one special person at a specific point in time or never again have a shot at true love.

Because they are not prone to catastrophize, idealize, or believe that the love of one specific person can save them, they do not build larger-than-life love stories in their minds. But, contrast this with how things might go for someone with a preoccupied attachment style.

If you have a preoccupied attachment style, you may view love as a scarce commodity that you need to guard and protect. You may believe that there simply is not enough love to go around. By extension, you are more likely to believe that there is one person out there who you must connect with. And when you meet someone who you think might be this person, you are always on guard for losing him or her. You are likely to daydream and have fantasies of ideal and intense passionate love. And you may even create these experiences for yourself. But typically these high highs are followed by equally low lows and sorrowful despair (if not panic) when things go bad. And, through it all, the person with a preoccupied style might ruminate and replay things over again and again in their mind.

And here is where memory comes in. When you have an intense emotional experience, your amygdala (a key component of your emotional brain) assigns an emotional “tag” (or marker) to the memory. Later when you retrieve the memory, the emotion is automatically retrieved with it. Or, if at some future point in time you are feeling a similar emotion, it may bring memories of the past event to the forefront of your consciousness. And the more you dwell on a memory, the stronger the neural pathways for that memory will become in your brain (through a process known as long-term potentiation). Also at play is the fact that relationship losses for those with preoccupied styles often are experienced as unresolved and ambiguous. People with preoccupied styles are likely to keep replaying past events in a failed effort to “figure it out” and “let go of the pain.”

The problem is that this approach rarely works, and you are likely to find yourself in your 40’s feeling melancholy and dreaming about the one who got away.

So, if you are prone to replay painful memories over and over, try thinking about the future instead and strategies that you can use to make relationships better. Research shows that solution-focused rumination lowers distress and negative emotions.

Do not focus on trying to figure out the past.

People with dismissing styles do this automatically. They literally “dismiss” negative social events and losses as inconsequential. They also suppress negative emotions, so they are not likely to experience them as intensely (at least at the conscious level). This pattern of denial and suppression blunts negative social memories and the experience of pain. Keep in mind that these strategies are adaptive for minimizing emotional pain related to relationship losses, but they do come at quite a price. They may use these same strategies in present-time love relationships, not just on memories of the past.

People with fearful styles have the same anxious and intense desires as those with preoccupied styles. But they also have the propensity to avoid, deny, and suppress as the person with a dismissing style. The problem is that they do not have strong enough emotion regulation skills to suppress feelings effectively. Negative emotions and memories are likely to rapidly invade consciousness at inopportune times and result in intense downward emotional spirals and being flooded with unresolved feelings of loss.

If you have a fearful style, you would be best served by talking things through with someone who is safe and trustworthy like a therapist or a friend who will speak truth to you… then once you gain some perspective and understanding, you can begin to engage in solution-focused and future-oriented thinking and let the past fade into the background.

No matter what your style, people have a need to make sense of and understand their worlds. If you can’t make sense of why a relationship ended, your brain will not know where to store the information in your memory or your mental map of the world (called a schema). And, if the situation is ambiguous enough you don’t have enough data to change or create new mental maps. So, the thoughts and memories just bounce around and stay active until a new relationship comes along to distract you. But those thoughts will just wait patiently until once again you find yourself in that lonely place or hear your friend going on and on about her latest heartbreak.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

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