How to build a bridge over your past

Until you can build a bridge over your past, you won’t be able to start living in the present or build a better future.
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Have you ever felt the presence of an old ghost? I don’t mean a floating figure draped in a bed sheet. I mean a persistent presence in your head. A memory, a sentence, an obsessive negative outlook.

Our ghosts are like a burden we bear from our pasts, and they affect our futures.

Perhaps our internal voice undermines our confidence.

Perhaps it makes us cynical, convinced that any new partner is just a ticking time bomb of disappointment.

Perhaps we doubt our own ability to maintain a healthy relationship.

“All (men/women) are the same”, is the most common complaint I hear when meeting my readers.

Why do men and women say it, when they know it’s not true? And why do they give up on relationships so soon, and without a fight, even in situations when there’s still something to fight for?

I’ll tell you. But if you’ll let me, I’ll start by taking a broader view – with some science thrown in.

In a man’s head

Harvard has published the results of a unique study. For 79 long years, it monitored the lives of 724 men. The first group (79 years ago) consisted of students in their second year at Harvard University, while the second group was made up of some of the poorest guys in Boston. All participants were monitored occasionally, from adolescence through to old age – at work, at home, at the doctor. The one question they were asked was: “What makes me happy and healthy?”

Since 1938, four generations of scientists refused to differentiate between family, friends, and community, and didn’t focus on wealth, social class, IQ, or genes. And now, the latest study director, Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has stated that they have found one common denominator: they are all plagued by loneliness.

”Men who were more isolated than they might want were less happy, their health declined more quickly, their intellect stagnated faster, and their lives shortened quicker. After all, men are well aware that the quality of their closest relationships is extremely important. They escape from marriages that conflict or do not work, as they kill them faster than the painful process of divorce. They long for happiness, for a warm embrace that protects them.”

And he added one note: ”A man’s 50th birthday says everything about him. This is when, for example, one can find a link between his cholesterol level and his satisfaction with his life. It is as though the man can feel it. Before fifty he deals with his life, he makes changes, he wants to be as happy as possible. We can prove that a man who was happiest in his relationships at fifty was still healthiest and strongest at eighty.”

Finally, Waldinger claimed: ”It is good relationships that make a good life. Men know this. They wither more quickly than women, if they fail in those relationships.”

Men make up 55% of the readers. Yes, there are more male readers than females. Yet, they only rarely speak publicly on such matters. However, some 90% of the emails I receive are from men. They want advice, help, and especially to remain anonymous. Most women would be surprised if they saw how much men are troubled by failed relationships, and how important successful relationships are to them.

So why don’t things work out for these two groups? How to forgive the mistakes of others, and of ourselves. How to understand William Faulkner, who wrote, ”as long as we live in the past, that is our present”.

Ghosts, where are you?

We all feel more vulnerable after a failure. Naturally, we make a mental note of what led to the failure and are more cautious next time. What we need to realise, however—and this is not just true of failures in relationships—is that our vulnerability won’t disappear until we learn to deal with the negative feelings we get from our failures.

Anyone who has read my post about a ferrymen will know that after a relationship ends, we need time to process our feelings. We need to transform all of our negative feelings into positive ones. One of the most common methods is to write a letter to your ex-partner, openly explaining the ideas and feelings that you still have. These letters, however, are never sent. They’re not intended for your ex-partner, but, instead, for you. They serve as a diary in which, retrospectively, you can self-cleanse. You may even be ashamed of the first pages, which, luckily, your ex-partner will never see.

Unfortunately, most people try to hasten time. Because they feel bad they jump into new relationships, believing that the entire cause of their misery is their lack of relationship. Wrong. The issue is, in fact, the burden they are carrying through from their past.

It is, of course, a paradox, but those who hurry make the ferrymen unhappy. The ferrymen are the new partners who are supposed to help them move from unhappiness back into happiness without even knowing. And they’re not helping themselves. They’re constantly dragging their burden with them. Or WITHIN THEM.

Allow me to provide two examples from my professional experience.

In a previous relationship, a man was constantly mocked by his wife for being a few kilos overweight. She used to deliberately pinch his fat belly, and she, herself, had a perfect body. Eventually, she left the man for someone more handsome.

In his later relationships, the man chose women who were unable to make fun of him. They, themselves, were overweight and he, in turn, started to pinch them. He lowered their self-confidence, so they wouldn’t leave him for a more handsome man. So they wouldn’t repeat his pain. As such, it was easier for him to instead cause them pain. He was unable to maintain his relationships, was totally unhappy, frustrated, and lost, with no idea which way to turn in life.

My other example is a woman who had an alcoholic father. As children follow their parents’ examples, either to the positive or negative extremes, she also married an alcoholic. He beat her, lied, and cheated, until she upped and left and carefully chose herself a new partner – the exact opposite. John only drank on special occasions. Even then, he only drank a little.

One day, however, he came home from the office party and lay down next to her in the dark. She could smell the alcohol on his breath and immediately panicked: ”He’s going to end up like my ex-husband”. The old ghost had spoken, and the woman’s approach to him fatally changed. ”He should have known that I can’t stand drinking”, she explained, when asked why she decided to end the relationship. She wanted to be on the safe side.

Bringing our ghosts into the light

Ghosts are afraid of the light. And this includes the light in your head. It’s as though they’re defying us, with all their might, to shine a light on them. So, it seems too much trouble to sit down with our partners, and to open up about the bad experiences we’re bringing up from the past. This reluctance could endanger our relationships.

We prefer to keep quiet. We believe that problems will go away on their own. However, a burden doesn’t disappear if it’s ignored. Quite the opposite. It becomes much more of a danger. It’s like a brick we’ve placed on the ground, in the dark, and are pretending isn’t there.

If we don’t want to trip over our burdens, we have to remove them once and for all. That’s the only way we can reconcile ourselves and deal with our past, whatever it may be.

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