The past impacts our present every day, whether it’s in how we approach certain situations, or how we emotionally react to what people say.
In romantic relationships, people can sometimes repeat behaviours to make up for the falls of their previous ones. In psychology this is called repetition compulsion, and it essentially means you’re trying to fix the past by pursuing similar situations or people who once hurt you.
There are several signs that you haven’t let go of the past, and these can manifest in how you behave with your current partner. Often, these patterns can start incredibly early with the relationships you had with your parents growing up.
“Our childhood experiences with our parents and our teachers and our friends really do have a pretty big impact on how we operate both personally and professionally in early adulthood,” Jennifer B. Rhodes, a psychologist, dating coach, and founder of Rapport Relationships, told Business Insider.
“There’s a pretty big population of people who enter early adulthood who have insecurity around creating and managing relationships. So I think what happens is when you’re not fully aware of the patterns you experienced at a younger age, you actually reenact those as an adult – and sometimes it doesn’t look pretty in your personal or your professional life.”
We spoke to several relationship experts to find out how to tell if you’re still hanging on to your past, and how this affects your current relationship.
Here are the 11 signs they came up with:
1. You always attract the same type of people.
According to Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” if one of your parents was a narcissist, or an alcoholic, you may find you keep being attracted to these types of people until you can work through what hurt you in that initial relationship and begin to heal.
“Empaths do this a lot, because they’re such fixers and they want to get in there and heal things,” she told Business Insider. “And they think if they fix the person, somehow that’s going to heal their original relationship. But it never works.
“So it’s important that people are aware, if they have had alcoholic parents and they keep attracting alcoholic boyfriends, that there may be a connection there, and that it’s important to look into whatever wounds you had growing up with an alcoholic parent so you don’t keep creating that in your life.”
2. You have ‘tainted joys.’
Perpetua Neo, a doctor of psychology and founder of Detox Your Heart, told Business Insider a bad relationship can give you “tainted pleasures.” These are things or experiences that were once important to you, or that you used to enjoy, but because they are connected to your previous partner you can’t stand them anymore.
“Or you feel guilty for enjoying it, or revisiting the same thing re-traumatises you,” she said. “Re-trauma can be something normal, but having it persist for a long time is not normal. There’s a big distinction. There’s always this period of healing where you get this dip and after that you get a rise. But if you feel like you’re always going to be in this dip forever, then that’s not healthy.”
Tainted pleasures can be something as simple as a musician or a place. It could even be an item of clothing.
“I can’t wear this dress, not because he bought it for me, but because he said something nice about it or I wore it to something,” Neo said. “So sometimes there’s this guilt that you’re betraying your ex-partner, and sometimes you just feel like it’s been tainted.”
3. You have hangups around physical intimacy.
Sometimes the signs might not be apparent until you’re in the bedroom. Neo said people can have sexual hangups around their previous relationships for various reasons.
“For instance, when people feel they cannot be sexually intimate because of their ex-partner,” she said. “We’re not just talking about general sex, but also certain positions, or certain ways in which a person touches them, or how they see themselves sensually… Really importantly, a big sign is if you say to yourself ‘I’m not going to think about it.’ But if it still owns you emotionally, in the middle of the night, or if you’re triggered or stressed, then it still affects you.”
4. You struggle to communicate about things that upset you.
David Brudö, the CEO and cofounder of personal development and mental well-being app Remente, told Business Insider a habit that can form as a result of a bad relationship is an inability to communicate effectively.
“If you felt that you weren’t listened to in a previous relationship, your way of communicating might be more aggressive than necessary in the new one,” he said, adding that this can lead to resentment building up.
According to psychologist Linda Blair, author of “Straight Talking” and several other books, if you don’t say early on that something bothers you, it’s only when it gets to a row that grievances are actually voiced.
“Did I say early enough on that that bothers me? Or did I wait, hoping it would go away, until it got so bad it caused a row between us?” she said. “Resentment is often a potential flashpoint. Lack of communication about plans, that’s also often a problem… I think communication is a key issue.”
5. Your wounds are not healed.
If people mimic the bad communication they had in previous relationships, this can easily lead to fierce rows, according to Orloff. People have emotional buttons, she said, and this could be anything that upsets them – words, a tone of voice, or shaming – and these are where your wounds are.
“Because if the wounds aren’t there, someone can say something to you that’s irritating but it won’t get to you to the degree it does when it’s not healed,” she said. “So it’s important to look at what your emotional buttons are. Do you feel shamed? Do you feel criticised? Do you feel not seen? And whatever they are to just gently and compassionately look at them, and begin to heal them.
“It’s good to enlist your mate in the process if they are open to that, so say this is what I’m doing with my life and I just want to be able to love you even more. I want us to be closer. It’s really wonderful when you have two people who are on board with that.”
6. You’re constantly anxious.
Rhodes said she has seen an increase in anxiety in her practice, especially among millennial clients. This anxiety makes things worse for people in all interpersonal relationships, she said, and one of the main reasons for it could be because people didn’t have good role models as a child.
“You tend to take things more personally, and more impulsively react, causing a lot of conflict in all kinds of relationships,” she said. “The natural reaction to anxiety is avoidance, and so unless you had really good models of people who are emotionally secure, and open, and can communicate, it’s actually a skill that has to be learned, and I’m seeing it’s taking people a lot longer to get to a place where they realise they have to learn that skill.”
7. You disrespect yourself.
If you had a past relationship that was difficult, abusive, or asymmetrical in some way, you may disrespect yourself as a result of the things your ex-partner said, according to Neo.
“We tell ourselves things like ‘you’re so stupid,’ ‘how could you do this again,’ and we scold ourselves all the time like this broken record in our heads,” she said. “But if you think carefully and think about whose voice is this really, you’ll realise actually it’s not your voice. You’ve just taken it on. It could be your father’s, or your ex-partner’s… This voice makes you question and judge yourself, especially because of what he or she told you in the past, and it affects your behaviour.”
Essentially, it is like the past keeping you in a box, she said. And part of breaking out of that box is realising your past relationship has no control over you anymore.
8. You re-live and re-create the past in your head.
After being hurt, you may find things running through your head over and over again. Some people experience this so vividly, it’s like re-living the trauma, said Neo.
“Re-living means that when you forget then is not now, and you’re not in your present situation,” she said. “You can smell it, feel it, and it becomes so vivid.”
Many of her clients experience nightmares too, such as their ex running after them with a cleaver. This is especially common after an abusive relationship, because the abuser has been blown up in their mind.
“In our heads, these things have an infinite space to fester, so this person can feel like a monster,” Neo said. “If this person still seems to hold a lot of power over you, I ask you ‘can you actually shrink this person in your head, in this visualisation?’ If not, they still hold power over you.”
9. You’re always looking over your shoulder.
If you went through a traumatic or abusive relationship in the past, you might believe everyone is going to be out to get you. Neo said this is like “looking out for the psychopath behind every bush.”
“With trauma comes this inability to trust life,” she said. “There are good people and there are going to be bad situations that bring out the worst in people. But then you’ve got to come out of the paranoia where you’re always looking over your shoulder.”
If you’re with your partner, or your friends, and you’re always looking out for that time where they’re going to trip you up, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, she added. In other words, by being too paranoid, you might doom your relationships before they begin.
“It’s about learning to trust your gut,” Neo said. “And we often try to trust our heads too much, but the thing is our heads can justify anything. So when you find yourself justifying too much about a person I call it cognitive Photoshop – that’s when you know your head is getting a bit caught up in this crazy hamster wheel.”
10. There’s no trust.
If you were cheated on in the past, a lack of trust can make its way into your new relationships, said Brudö, which can lead to numerous arguments, and even a break-up.
“A lack of trust can manifest in controlling and paranoid behaviour,” he said. “For example, asking your partner to see their phone, [or to] check their messages or social media accounts is a controlling habit that will eventually lead to your partner being defensive, as you are invading their privacy.”
Blair said that the main things that make a relationship last are communication and trust, and if you’re checking your partner’s devices or asking other people about them in an obsessive way, that’s a bad sign.
“Most people who don’t trust also don’t have confidence so you have to check your self confidence,” she said. “If you know you’re good and worthwhile it’s easier to trust that someone will think so too.”
11. You push people away.
Some people push away the people they love, and they can sometimes do this because of a bad relationship, or trauma in their childhood.
Brudö said this can manifest as a fear of commitment, as for many this is response to the possibility of being hurt again. Essentially, you might be scared of being abandoned.
“You might find that you are subconsciously pushing your new partner to leave you, or demand constant reassurance from them, which can become draining and exhausting for them,” he said.
Constantly pushing people away could also be a sign you have an avoidant attachment style, which is when you enter relationships that will inevitably fail, or push away anyone who is right for you. This way, you never let anybody hurt you, but you don’t find happiness either.
So what can you do? Firstly, take some time.
People sometimes find themselves jumping from relationship to relationship, without really looking inside themselves to see where some of their deeper issues lie.
If you don’t take the time to reflect, you might be going straight into another relationship simply because you miss the intimacy and closeness of a partner – but the new person might not be right for you at all. Even if they are, you might not be in the right frame of mind to make it work.
“The first thing to do is to take your time to heal,” said Brudö. “Whenever a break-up happens, whether a bad one or an amicable one, it usually leads to emotional drain. You are parting from someone you loved and someone you spent a lot of time with, so you will need to take some time to readjust and re-learn to be yourself, without the other person in the equation. Taking this time to learn about yourself and reflect on your relationship can do a lot to help the next relationship be a success.”
Remember not everyone is the same.
“Just because someone has hurt you in the past, it doesn’t mean that your new partner will do the same, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you should punish them for the mistakes made in your previous relationship,” Brudö added.
It’s also important to communicate with your new partner, be open and honest, and explain why you might have certain hangups or sore spots.
“If you know that you have been irrational in a given situation, explain why you behaved that way,” he said. “You don’t need to go into too much detail, but simply acknowledging you were wrong and communicating a desire to improve, will help your new relationship flourish.”
Remember to stay positive.
Relationships are hard work, but as the saying goes, nothing worth having comes easy.
Orloff said it’s important to stay positive about relationships, because they are a challenge, but they also teach us so much and give us the strength to change when we need to.
“For me, it’s extremely courageous to love,” she said. “That’s what relationships are about. How can you love somebody else, how can you love yourself, how can you honour your own sensitivities?
“[Relationships are] challenging, but that’s what we’re here to do. To love, to learn about our places where we need healing, to be giving to people, and enjoy life.”