Is Your Relationship Being Hurt by Ghosts of Relationships Past?

In order for us to be truly present for our partners, we need to come clean about our heart’s history.

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Photo Credit: Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

By Richard Gatley

Stumbling upon an old period dress photograph of a family wearing turn-of-the-century clothing, I saw my bearded self in a top hat, standing beside my young son and daughter. We looked like a nice family. But, standing next to me, in an over-sized bonnet, was a woman who didn’t seem to belong in the picture. I had married her in a storefront “Marrying Sam” wedding mill in Reno, Nevada, not because I was in love with her, but because she hadn’t obtained a visa when we moved to the United States. There was a good reason for the sour expression on her face. She didn’t really belong “in the picture.”

Although it had been more than twenty years since we parted company, I still felt the same repulsion seeing her face in that photograph. It brought back the years of defending my children and myself from someone who was emotionally, and I think mentally, wounded. I am still making apologies to my grown children for having subjected them to someone I am sure they regarded as a “wicked step-mother.


When I told my present wife about my reaction to this photograph, she quite naturally wanted to see it for herself. I was unable to find it. I had slipped it under something, thinking it easy to retrieve. We searched and have yet to discover it among the detritus of my office.

“It’s been twenty-something years since you divorced her,” my wife said. “Why are you still reacting so strongly to her photograph?”

I had no answer to her question. A shiver ran through me as I realized that what my wife was suggesting with her question was true: I was still emotionally caught in that woman’s snare.

I had never been able to explain to myself why I took so long to free myself from that relationship, let alone understand why I had gotten into it in the first place! The frustration of that old predicament spilled over into the moment, and I demanded to know why my wife was pressing me so strongly about the matter.

“Why do you want to know about this?” I asked, with annoyance.

“Because that contraction creates a distance between us.”

“What do mean ‘contraction’?”

“I’m talking about how thinking of her or seeing her picture pulls you in, it takes you away from me. When you’re caught up in thinking about her you’re out of your body — you’re so distracted you aren’t here. You close your heart. You do that because you still have to defend yourself against her. And I feel you pulling away where I can’t reach you.”

I knew what she was saying was true. In the past, I might easily have become defensive, resentful of someone pushing me to see things I didn’t want to see, or admit things I was ashamed of. But, I understood what she was doing. I was deeply appreciative, in fact.

I realized that my wife was defending our relationship. It wasn’t all right for me to suddenly disappear from her emotionally and mentally. She wanted me to be aware that I was being kidnapped by old fears, that a kind of string still connected me to a world of memories and feelings that had nothing to do with the present. She wasn’t going to stand by and allow this to happen without figuratively taking me by the shoulders and shouting, “Wake up!”

But, hold it! Why should I put up with this kind of intrusiveness? Why should I reveal myself to this woman when I had remained guarded with so many others?

The answer is that I had finally found the right woman!

I had fallen in love with her more than sixty years before when we were high school classmates. In the most unexpected fashion, we had been reunited through what had seemed like a chance encounter on Facebook. Neither of us had known who the other was; she had changed her name and hadn’t remembered mine, yet something made me ask her who she was. When she revealed her identity I was suddenly talking to the girl I had been too shy to talk to so very long ago! Within days, we were in love, within months married, each day discovering how much we were meant for each other.

In our first year of marriage, my wife ferreted out every serious relationship I have ever had with a woman. It was hard at first. I had never found women particularly trustworthy with that kind of information. They tended to use it when they wanted to hurt me.

I gradually began to realize that the reason my wife pressed me for the amorous details of my life was that she refused to share me with ghosts from my past. She was determined to free me from old connections, both good and bad, so I would be hers entirely.

This kind of single-minded determination would probably infuriate a lot of men, resentful of someone prying into the past. Our romantic memories shine more brightly with the years. It is so easy to turn to them when we’re disillusioned with the present.


To use the language of addiction, most of us keep a “stash” somewhere, memories of past loves to which we can turn when we’re unhappy or angry with our present relationship. Secretly, we hold our partner up to these gleaming images, knowing they’ll be tarnished in comparison. In doing so, we betray the one we say we love.

But, the unfairness of comparison isn’t the basic betrayal. It is the fact that a piece of your heart is being secreted away, held in trust for someone who isn’t even in your life, stolen from the one to whom you’ve supposedly given your heart today.

Although our partners may have no idea what we’re thinking, they will be aware that we’ve withdrawn from the relationship, and they’ll be free to draw on their own ghosts and memories in imagination of what we’re doing.

When we hold our secrets tightly to ourselves, including our memories, we are sacrificing intimacy in our current relationships. However, when we reveal ourselves to one another, we chip away at the loneliness that is an inevitable part of being a human, and open ourselves to the warmth and compassion of the love that is right in front of us.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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